I love Joan Silber’s fiction, and I love “Improvement,” her new novel. Alas, one of the least interesting things a critic can do about a book is like it. People like marmite, and Los Angeles, and the musical “Cats.” People like Donald Trump. De gustibus non est disputandum, the Romans said, in their phrasemaking way — taste exists beyond the realm of dispute. They liked watching gladiators fight to the death.
Yet it feels vital to love Silber’s work, which has been too little loved, too little mentioned, beyond a small readership that seems to be composed mostly of other writers. Silber is 72, and with “Improvement” has written at least three truly great books. Now is the moment to appreciate that she is here, in our midst: our country’s own Alice Munro.
Silber’s great theme as a writer is the way in which humans are separated from their intentions, by desires, ideas, time. Her 1980 debut, “Household Words,” is a quietly beautiful chronicle of one woman’s unexpected life from 1940 onward, but she really came into her own in two collections of linked stories, “Ideas of Heaven” and “Fools,” both finalists for the National Book Award.
In both of them, too, Silber loops one life’s tale into the next, so that a minor character from the last story becomes central to the next. They have a huge range; the most daring and interesting story from “Ideas of Heaven” is about a missionary family under siege in China during the Boxer Rebellion; the most agonizing about a dancer in New York and her cruel instructor. “Fools,” which covers a century of American life, begins with perhaps Silber’s strongest published work, about a young female drawn into the anarchist movement of the 1920s.
“Improvement” is more certainly a novel, belonging first and last to a single mother named Reyna living in Harlem, though it alights briefly, like a songbird, in the lives of numerous other characters. “My boyfriend was spending three months at Rikers Island,” Reyna says near the outset. “For all of October I’d gone to see him once a week. He was there for selling five ounces of weed (who thinks that should even be a crime?) and it made a big difference.”
Her boyfriend, Boyd, is smart, kind and reckless. After a few months out, he gets involved in a scheme to smuggle cigarettes in bulk from Virginia back to New York and make a profit on the difference in tax. Eventually, he and his friends ask Reyna, less noticeable because she’s white, to drive the car.
Reyna’s best friend is her aunt, Kiki, who in her youth fled their loving family for Turkey, found a husband, then returned in her 30s with nine intricate carpets to sell. The characters counterpoise each other subtly: Reyna is at the age of idealism, Kiki highly sympathetic to it but conscious of its limitations. When Reyna makes her decision, there are tragic consequences, and it’s Kiki who is there for her, to remember what it meant to be young.
What’s hard to convey is the riverine naturalness of Silber’s style. Like Grace Paley and Lucia Berlin, she’s a master of talking a story past its easiest meaning; like Munro, a master of the compression and dilation of time, what time and nothing else can reveal to people about themselves. She has an American voice: silvery, within arm’s length of old cadences, but also limber, thieving, marked by occasional raids on slang and jargon, at ease both high and low, funny, tenderhearted, sharp. It gives her the rare ability to reach the deepest places in the plainest ways.
From afar, it’s easy to understand why Silber’s career has been more of a critical than a commercial success. She doesn’t write big — her most sprawling book, “The Size of the World,” is her weakest. Nor does she have the tang of strangeness on her side, like Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia Davis or George Saunders.
Still, once every so often the literary community picks an older writer up on its shoulders (Joy Williams, for instance, a couple of years ago) and says, look, look at what this person’s been doing all along. Maybe it’s Silber’s turn. One of her characters would hold on to that hope, anyhow. Late in “Improvement,” Reyna does something extravagant and foolish, a lonely, unnecessary act of atonement. “I had done what I wanted,” she says, “which was a great thing, and I was mostly pretty delirious, but also confused.”
This is the incoherence of living, which is what we ask fiction to explain to us. Silber, in her earlier work and in this intricate yet effortlessly readable novel, returns again and again to the integrity of placing faith in that incoherent world. “I was very silly when I was young,” the great Mary Ruefle once wrote. “I have that to be thankful for.”
Charles Finch is the author, most recently, of “The Inheritance.”
By Joan Silber
Counterpoint. 256 pp. $26