But the most striking aspect of this novel (besides the wistful line drawings by the author’s brother) is its airy structure. Our impressions of the Popper family gradually accrete over hundreds of short moments, running along the three freely intertwined time periods. Many of these are only two or three pages long; some are just a brief paragraph. It’s a sprawling collection of vignettes about the evolution of a great city and the dissipation of an average family. This meandering chronology gradually begins to place later events in poignant juxtaposition to earlier scenes of hope and optimism. What emerges is the history of a man trying to feel loved, watching his parents and grandparents falling apart, and seeing politics as some larger expression of belonging that never quite satisfies.
“Call this a vision of nothing much,” Orner writes, before describing Alexander at 12, hesitating to join in the fun at the public pool. Of course, that claim to “nothing much” is wholly ironic. Orner’s short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes and a spot in 2001’s “The Best American Short Stories.” No less an eminence than Marilynne Robinson has praised the “true beauty” of his writing. A teacher at San Francisco State University, he’s unusually gifted at creating freighted moments of despair that generate far more impact than their size would suggest. There’s a short piece in “Love and Shame and Love” about a fishing vacation — “Chain O’Lakes” — that’s line-by-line perfect, from its hilarious opening image of Alexander’s mother sitting in the boat in her mink coat to its mournful climax. An anecdote about gym class — “The Hill” — plays with the cliches of middle school, but then sneaks up and devastates you. In another extraordinary piece of minimalism — just a single page called “1233 North Damen” — Alexander sits alone in his apartment listening to a trapped mouse die. It shouldn’t work, but it does, powerfully.