23 August 2013

New Words

Joan Silber
Recommendations on writers and books enter my radar often and while recorded dutifully in my phone book notes, often go undiscovered for years a trigger, oh yes, I've been wanting to read her. Such is the case for Joan Silber, a writer of great renown, mentored by the great Grace Paley at Sara Lawrence, where Silber teaches, and whose stories I occasionally stumble upon in the New Yorker, and always admire, but had yet to read her novels. She just published a new collection of stories and that reminded me that she is a must read in writers' circles, so I embarked at last on the canon of Joan Silber and have found myself shaking my head in awe as I read, marveling at her insightful commentaries and profound understanding of human nature. Her first novel, Household Words, was published in 1976 to great acclaim, and re-issued in 2005 by Norton, thankfully, and although certainly dated, no less smart, an interesting portrait of a not terribly interesting woman, a not especially likable woman, passive-aggressive and resistant to change, narcissistic and, not surprisingly, lonely and dissatisfied. An ungrateful woman, but not a hateful woman. She sees her life as simply unlucky, perhaps so, and her two daughters struggle with a love-hate relationship with their difficult mother, though they stand their ground more often than not, and frankly, by the end, I was more interested in knowing what happened to them after the ending. Her negligence in many ways allowed them to forge independent futures although with an awful lot of turmoil. Lots of setting detail in this novel, evocative of a woman mired in the trees, no sense of the forest at all, and perhaps emblematic of that period. She was born just after WW I and the story opens when she is pregnant with her first born, in 1940. Despite her high dislikability quotient, we root for her, we want her to see and know what we see, and understand her far better than she understands herself, thanks to this smart smart writer. And no easy contrived tying up of loose ends here, perhaps a moment of clarity, but too little too late. Since I have too many piles of short story collections calling to me, I next read another Silber novel, The Size of the World, and report back.