Reviewed by Howard Norman
Sunday, July 20, 2008
THE SIZE OF THE WORLD
By Joan Silber
Norton. 322 pp. $23.95
Joan Silber's new novel, The Size of the World, comprises six stories with linked themes, families and political realities, in settings ranging from Sicily during World War I to Siam in the 1920s, from Mexico during the Vietnam War to Bloomington, Ind., at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. To illustrate what she calls "the elusive connection between place and happiness" requires perfectly calibrated psychological insight and near-photographic descriptions of daily life in far-flung places, and Silber is a genius at this. Like Shirley Hazzard and Lily Tuck, Silber is drawn to the subjects of travel, political violence and immigrant life, and like those writers, she depicts, in elegantly restrained prose, the way loneliness can intensify or dismantle relationships.
As in Silber's splendid Ideas of Heaven, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004, the unifying element here is the restlessness of the human heart. People are constantly setting up house. Children are moved from school to school. Sex is more a function of reunion than of constancy. All this furtiveness and displacement make for a kind of unrequited love with the world itself -- home is not where the heart is, it is where the heart longs to be.
Quietly suspenseful, each story, a first-person narration, constructs its own mood, joys and disappointments. And each story contains the narrative arc and prodigious amount of incident of, say, a Chekhov novella. We are always in the moment, yet a great deal of time is passing. No matter if, metaphorically, Silber reduces the world to the size of a marriage bed or of a letter announcing a death, her measured tone allows readers to see life as intimately knowable yet essentially mysterious. Though her portrayals of specific children are on occasion less affecting than her assessment of childhood itself, without fail her adult characters are indelibly drawn and quite unforgettable. I was deeply moved by each of their lives.
Take, for example, my favorite story, "Envy," which opens the book. Its narrator is Toby, a self-professed "Navy brat," fascinated by his father's peripatetic life. "I used to make my father repeat the names of where he'd fought on the Pacific Front," Toby says. "The complicated contours of those syllables intrigued me (Makassar, Badung, Sunda). My father said war wasn't the best way to see the world, whatever the Navy said in their recruiting ads. But I could trace the battle lines on maps for any number of wars."
Toby is in his 20s when, along with a pal, he decides, reluctantly, to take part in his generation's defining fiasco: Vietnam. Though he's a civilian engineer, he sees enough of the war's destructiveness to be affected by it. The story follows his life in Vietnam and Thailand, his ultimately disillusioning jobs, his marriage to Toon (one of Silber's most exacting portraits) and the travails of their two children. The tale ends in a paragraph whose penetrating wistfulness might serve as a coda to the entire book. On an evening in Bangkok, Toby says: "We were not in a hurry to get home and we stood at the window of the store for a while, lost in looking. We were each trying to see as far as we could, farther, into that glassy space of the other life -- with its freedoms and its sufficiencies, the unled life -- perhaps not better than this life either, but always longed for."
In an interview about Ideas of Heaven Silber said, "I certainly didn't want to write historical fiction where everything was cozy and adorable." In The Size of the World she has succeeded in creating a fictional world that is as far from cozy and adorable as can be. What's more, she is unwavering in her sympathies toward her characters, no matter how they've handled their lives. An hour after finishing The Size of the World, I was homesick for them. ·
Howard Norman's most recent novel is "Devotion."