The Decisive Moment

Joan Silber
Joan Silber; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

“Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,” John Berger wrote in his novel G. (1972). In the decades that have followed, that line has become a rallying cry for contemporary novelists, including Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, and, most famously, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But it’s worth remembering that, from Mrs. Dalloway to Underworld, the novel has often relied on a plurality of voices—sometimes a chorus, sometimes a cacophony—to evoke the texture of life. A technique that once felt radical has become a new fictional norm.

So it bears noticing when a novelist creates a genuinely new way of suggesting the complicated dance of relationships formed and dissolved, of connections made and missed, that sets the tone for a human life. For the last seventeen years, in a succession of books that are structured as a hybrid of the novel and linked stories, Joan Silber has been quietly stretching our understanding of how stories can be told. Using one person’s narrative as a jumping-off point for any number of others—the high school ex-girlfriend who appears momentarily in one chapter might become the focus of the next—her work generates tension and momentum from the ebbs and flows of individual lives, but also from the unexpected and sometimes unexplained links between them. “The world is not revolving around you—or it’s revolving around you from your point of view, but there are a lot of other revolutions going on at the same time,” she has said. Her method is “a way of conveying that, of giving a broader canvas than fiction sometimes gives.”

It’s a testimony to Silber’s gifts that none of her books in this mode—starting with In My Other Life (2000), there are now six—feels formulaic. Each of them pushes in a new direction. Ideas of Heaven (2004), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, is a “ring of stories” written in the first person, in which every speaker connects almost invisibly to the next until the final piece of the puzzle brings them all together. In The Size of the World (2008), faulty screws in a guidance system for American planes in Vietnam kickstart a journey across decades, from Vietnam to Florida, Thailand, Sicily, and New Jersey. Fools (2013) begins with a circle of anarchists in 1920s New York and masterfully unspools threads that lead from Paris to Mumbai and finally circle back around. In each book, the characters are linked not only by their circumstances but also, and more importantly, by their shared preoccupations: the twin paths of sex and religion as routes to ecstasy; the unintended and often irrevocable consequences of our actions; the challenge of reconciling our practical desires with our moral impulses.

With Improvement, her eighth work of fiction, Silber takes on what might be the quintessential American drive: improving ourselves, our partners, or our situations. How do we live our…

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