“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 “best life,” as Oprah exhorts from the newsstand? How do we become our best selves—through travel, romance, caretaking, risk-taking? Like the Turkish carpet that drives much of the book’s action, Improvement repeats shapes and motifs, layering them in an intricate pattern that builds into something far more complex than the sum of its parts.
That carpet, from the village of Kula, was brought to America by Kiki, whose niece, Reyna, narrates the first section of the book. Reyna doesn’t know much about her aunt’s years in Turkey, other than that Kiki met a carpet seller in Istanbul in 1970 and married him. When his business failed, they moved to his family’s farm in the countryside, living with his parents. Eight years later, Kiki returned to New York on her own, toting nine carpets in her “third-world” luggage—“woven plastic valises baled up with string.” She sold a few and kept one for Reyna, who adores her but regards her as a little wacky.
When the novel opens, just before Hurricane Sandy, Reyna, a single mother to four-year-old Oliver, has been waiting patiently for several months for her boyfriend, Boyd, to be released from Rikers Island, where he was sent for selling marijuana. He is devoted to her and to Oliver, but his friends—especially Lynnette, his ex-girlfriend and the sister of his friend Claude—mistrust Reyna, presumably because she’s white. As a part-time receptionist at a veterinarian’s office, Reyna doesn’t make much money; still, she has everything she needs and is happy with her life, especially with Boyd in it.
But when Boyd gets out of jail, he finds that his social position has fallen. No longer allowed to tend bar as he once did, he’s stuck working at a diner. He, Claude, and two other friends cook up a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Richmond, Virginia, where taxes are low, and sell them in New York. For the first few runs, everything goes fine, and the influx of cash gives Boyd and the others a new confidence. Money and the things it gets us—not all of them material—is one of the threads Silber will worry throughout the novel. “From repeated success, from tests passed and suspense endured, their personalities were all showing signs of change,” she writes.
Claude had stopped looking hangdog and was now a seemlier specimen, Maxwell took on the dignity of a general, and Wiley was getting closer to unbearable. Boyd simply had more hope in him.
We know that something will go wrong, and it does. One day Wiley, the designated driver, doesn’t show up. Maxwell doesn’t have a license, Claude is a terrible driver, and Boyd, still on probation, isn’t allowed to leave New York. They ask Reyna to step in, and she agrees, but at the last minute she changes her mind. Who will take care of Oliver if they get caught and she goes to jail? Claude, impulsively, takes the wheel. He and Maxwell never make it to Richmond. Outside Baltimore, trying to turn onto I-95 from a rest stop, he crashes into a truck. Claude dies before the ambulance gets there; Maxwell winds up in the hospital; Lynnette nearly loses her mind with grief. And Boyd leaves Reyna, their relationship poisoned by her last-minute refusal to help and the disaster that followed. His yearning for improvement has sabotaged them both.
In life, we often don’t recognize the moments that potentially alter our courses until long after the results are fixed. The same goes for Silber’s fiction, which is centered around those moments of irrevocability but often allows them to pass by almost unnoticed. Reyna doesn’t even learn of Claude’s accident until nearly a week later, after the consequences have already begun to take shape. Everyone touched by it—some directly, others tangentially—is altered. Each is seen briefly but fully, with distinct desires and sorrows.
Teddy, the middle-aged trucker who was driving the tractor-trailer Claude crashed into, is haunted by the moment: “the noise of the car’s arrival, the unbelievable cosmic smack of it collapsing itself into crumpled metal.” He feels doubly guilty, both for Claude’s death (though the accident wasn’t his fault) and also because he was on his way to visit his ex-wife, Sally, with whom he’s been having an unlikely affair (he is remarried). They’ve met again twenty-six years after their divorce, after her casual request for a document led to an e-mail correspondence and then a series of furtive meetings. Teddy still feels guilty, too, about the way he behaved during their marriage: he drank too much and once ran over a fancy dress of Sally’s with his truck while they were having a fight. He wonders how to repay her for his bad behavior:
He’d assumed his genuine remorse was enough—it was a lot, from him—but how much of life was weighable and concrete and physical and how much was the-thought-that-counted?
Back in Richmond, Darisse, whom Claude has been seeing on his trips there, grows despondent when he doesn’t show up at the bar where they were supposed to meet and stops answering his phone. (“Who had told the girl in Richmond, or was she still waiting?” Reyna wonders after she hears about the accident.) She works as a home health aide and lives with her grandmother, who consented to take her in but not her two-year-old daughter. She’s allowed to see the little girl, who now lives with her ex’s mother, only on weekends and only when her ex is in the mood, which sometimes depends on her willingness to perform sexual favors. Soon after Claude’s disappearance, she meets Silas, a soft-spoken nurse who takes her out to a jazz club and on their next date brings her back to his stylish apartment. Everyone around her thinks he’s a step up from her previous boyfriends—he dresses well, treats her nicely, makes her waffles for breakfast—but somehow she still doesn’t feel right with him and continues to long for Claude. One person’s improvement is another’s step down.
With each of these stories—by the end of the book, there will be several more distinct strands—Silber spins another variation on the novel’s larger themes of advancement and decline, of the mysterious and messy workings of love, of paths taken and not taken. Her technique of shifting viewpoints from one chapter to the next highlights not only the way a single dramatic event can ripple outward into ever-expanding circles, but also how a moment that is incidental for one person can be decisive for another. Apparently minor details also gain something when seen from a different perspective. By the time Kiki’s luggage, which looked so foreign to Reyna as a child, appears again, we know exactly how she acquired the carpets she’s carrying and what they mean to her.
Dieter is a German in his early thirties when he spends a summer in the 1970s traveling in Turkey with two friends, illegally buying antiquities to sell at a profit back home. One day the trio stops outside Kiki’s farm, and she impulsively invites them to stay the night. After an evening spent drinking and singing Beatles songs, they ask her to join them—they could use a Turkish speaker. “Was this her next adventure, come in off the road to summon her?” Kiki wonders. For her it’s a turning point—though she chooses to stay, she will soon realize that her marriage is over. For the Germans, she’s simply a curiosity, “the American girl, keeping house with that granny in the middle of nowhere.” They will move on and mostly forget about her.
The changing perspectives constantly challenge the reader’s sympathies. A character who behaves badly in one story may be depicted more forgivingly in the next. Reyna knows Lynnette only as Boyd’s jealous ex-girlfriend, defensive and suspicious of outsiders. But when the reader sees her later through the eyes of a client in the salon where she works, a different Lynnette appears—fierce, yes, but loyal and ambitious. Here we learn about Lynnette’s own desire for improvement: to open up a salon of her own, which she imagines Claude, with his smuggling money, will help her do. When circumstances that she couldn’t have predicted and doesn’t fully understand bring about the realization of her dream, it feels, strangely, as if some kind of restitution has been made.
It’s a cliché to compare a short-story writer to Chekhov; usually critics do that just to say that the stories are good. But there are a few writers, such as Alice Munro and William Trevor, who are consistently and meaningfully called Chekhovian, and their distinct quality, I think, is that their stories don’t feel like snapshots of a life, but seem to represent that life entire. Silber, too, bears this distinction; she manages to make the canvases of these linked stories stretch more broadly than seems possible. Sometimes years spin by in a glimpse, as when we learn from Dieter of his wife’s bout with cancer:
Gisela looked wonderful too—older, more angular, and now with wine-red hair, a change she’d begun as defiance. When the chemo made her hair fall out and it grew back in chunks, she went auburn. Her hair was longer now, an areole of jagged fuzz, still punk maroon.
That’s all we get about her illness, and it’s all we need.
The uniformity of Silber’s tone is the only real limitation of her method. The narrative’s perspective moves fluidly from one character to the next, but each of them sounds more or less the same. This is likely deliberate, a way of bringing together so many diverse figures. If they all had distinctive voices, the result might be chaos. Silber has said that she’s “not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices.” But our inner voices aren’t always as cool and detached as the prose on these pages. A greater tonal variety would lift the novel’s energy level just a notch.
There are always more stories; there are always more ways of telling stories. Part of Silber’s gift is knowing which stories not to tell. Her prose is spare, devoid of flourishes and extraneous information. We learn everything we need to know about Silas, Darisse’s new boyfriend, from the descriptions of his apartment: “a big shining dining room table and a whole field of orchids along a window,” the bedroom “very big and too full of bright light and too arranged, with its surfaces of tan and brown and bamboo.” In their stark setting, the details she offers are gems. Steffi, the lone woman in the German trio that visits Kiki, is the lead negotiator in their antiquities dealings; bargaining over a cuneiform tablet, she unhooks the gold locket she’s wearing and sets it on the table: “The real joy of the trip for her was in those moments. Her face was hardly ever like that, shining.” “Lot of stories in the world,” Silas comments offhandedly the morning after he and Darisse first spend the night together. Perhaps Silber is saving his for another book.
It’s worth mentioning that Silber came to her distinctive narrative structures not entirely by choice. Her career has been marked by setbacks that say far more about the publishing industry than about the quality of her writing. After publishing two more conventional novels—Household Words (1980), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and In the City (1987)—she was unable to get another book published for thirteen years. Interviewing Silber for The Believer, the writer Sarah Stone called this hiatus “the literary equivalent of being dropped in the wilderness with nothing but a light sweater and a stick of gum.” Paradoxically, Silber told Stone, she found her period in the wilderness freeing, because she knew no one was expecting anything specific from her. She felt no pressure to repeat herself; instead, she could find a new path.
When Ideas of Heaven was named a finalist for the National Book Award, there was a small outcry. Not because a beloved and original writer had finally gotten her due, but because the book, like the other finalists—Florida (Christine Schutt), Our Kind (Kate Walbert), Madeleine Is Sleeping (Sarah Shun-lien Bynum), and the eventual winner, The News from Paraguay (Lily Tuck)—was too “obscure.” Writing in The New York Times, Edward Wyatt expressed incredulity that these books had been nominated at all, in view of their poor sales, which he cited as somewhere between seven hundred and nine hundred copies. As it turned out, he misstated the numbers. A rather long correction explained that the Nielsen BookScan figures on which he had relied could have excluded numerically significant sales to libraries or elsewhere. But the real flaw of his article wasn’t this error. It was his assumption that there is a reliable correlation between a book’s sales and its quality.
One might ask instead: If a group of well-regarded judges thought these were the five best books of the year, why weren’t more people hearing about them and buying them? What if someone had suggested that it might be time to pay attention to smaller literary novels by women rather than allowing the big books of the season (Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America was the main contender that year) to suck up all the attention? What if, instead of a piece mocking these books for their low sales and denigrating the small press that published one of them, a mainstream newspaper had questioned why a National Book Award–nominated author had been rejected by mainstream publishing houses?
“Is she still around?” a friend exclaimed in delighted surprise when I mentioned I was reading Joan Silber’s new novel. It is both tragic and infuriating that a writer as innovative, humane, and wise is not read more widely. One of the underlying themes of Improvement is whether improvement is enough. Can things that are broken ever be entirely fixed? Or must we settle for incremental change, bit by painful bit?