In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Jonathan Franzen, decrying technology’s suctioning of deep human emotions (i.e. “liking” a video of a kitten playing the piano versus deeply caring about someone), writes that “the ultimate goal of technology…is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” That our current obsession with techno-consumerism is incompatible with traditional love as it applies to long-lasting human relationships. In his latest novel, Us, Michael Kimball delivers a gripping, forceful ode to that almost-forgotten lifelong theater of affection and agony between a man and a woman, an impeccably rendered meditation on what the Japanese call mono no ware, the beautiful sadness of impermanence.
The novel is told primarily from the perspective of an elderly man whose often-ill wife suffers a major stroke while the two are in bed. In the hospital, and later at home, the husband exerts his own fragile energy by devising (and dreaming) methods of easing his spouse’s degeneration, while failing to cope with a horrific possibility that has never been considered: “She didn’t look like my wife like that, but I had never seen my wife dying before that night and I didn’t know what it was going to look like.” The remainder of the narrative is interspersed with chapters narrated by a much younger man, ostensibly the husband’s grandson many years later, who probes and analyzes his family’s history to better understand the love between his grandparents, in order to make sense of his own existential fear and questions about death.
The prose’s genius lies in its simple and straightforward, yet excruciatingly detailed delivery. Even though there are few, if any genuine emotional meltdowns on the part of the husband, the reader is instantly enveloped by his quiet grief, his unyielding devotion to his wife as he fills her hospital room with familiar items from their home to comfort her even in her comatose state, as he later moves her arms and legs so that she can re-learn to move them on her own, as he places pills on her lips and gently prods her to swallow. The hopeless superstitions that he hopes will prolong their lives: “I thought that she might open her eyes up if I kept looking at her.” “Poignant” and “heartbreaking”, both cute, hackneyed adjectives, do nothing to describe the emotional disturbia evoked by the novel. It is impossible for anyone who has witnessed the bond between failing grandparents or parents, or has even come close to experiencing a love that transcends the triviality of this gratification-hungry era to not be moved by the painstakingly rehearsed ways in which the characters meld their deteriorating bodies and minds in an obviously futile attempt at prolonging the inevitable – “We both took her sleeping pills so that we both could sleep. We were doing everything together that we could.”
Initially I found the transition in narration from the husband to the grandson to be a bit (unpleasantly) jarring, especially given how engrossing and strongly written the initial chapters were. But ultimately, the grandson sections do a wonderful job of breaking up the always understated yet supercharged intensity of the husband chapters, a psychological heaviness that might verge on the unbearable when taken all at once. The tone here, even given Us’s subject matter, manages to feel a tad lighter, less of the depressing and more the reverent (yet still ultimately sad) memories of long-gone ancestors who belong to a time and a social construction that these days seems utterly foreign. The juxtaposition of the distant and internal perspectives of the same events provides a different, more powerful fullness at it pertains to a greater human tragedy. One of the book’s most touching scenes comes from a memory of the grandson’s in which he is watching his grandfather carefully aiming his instant camera over a casket at a funeral, and later blowing on a fresh picture, waiting for an ended life to re-materialize in his hands.
Franzen concludes his piece by suggesting that the inevitability of death “is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair,” but that we can alleviate much of the discomfort inherent in being alive by truthfully embracing love in whatever form we choose. The bare thoroughness of this realization as it pertains to human relationships is Us’s greatest success. Light beach reading this book is not. But for those willing to shed some of the pain-defying mechanism (and more than a few tears), Kimball has delivered a frighteningly universal gut-wrenching, a necessary blast with the power to upset (and maybe help) even the most hardened, solipsistic of readers. By delving so deeply into the most ordinary and unsettling of truths – one that makers of smartphone apps and the ADD technophiles who need them would like to ignore – he has taken contemporary fiction and turned on the light of a sparsely decorated dark and beautiful room to which it has perhaps never been.
About the author:
Chris Vola’s reviews appear in The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Used Furniture Review, and elsewhere. He is the founder and editor of Apocalypse Piñata, a forthcoming literary and cultural e-magazine.