Joan Silber’s elegant sixth book, The Size of the World (Norton, 2008 – hardcover / 2009 – paperback), probes what one character describes as “the elusive connection between happiness and place.” In prose both beautiful and spare, Silber crafts a novel of thematically linked stories that span continents and generations, and whose predominantly American characters look for adventure and contentment abroad—or in the arms of lovers who will always remain, at the core, unknowable.
Each story plays with this tension between a traveler’s joy at discovery and the distance she feels from her adopted home or partner. We see this theme first in “Envy,” with Toby, a young engineer sent in the late 1960s to Vietnam to find out why many of his company’s planes are going down. While in Bangkok, he falls deeply in love with the Thai nurse who dresses his leg wounds. After they marry, he soon realizes that her family expects more financial support than he can provide. In the second story, “Independence,” Toby’s high school girlfriend, Kit, moves with her young daughter to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, to broaden her horizons. But even as she adopts local dress in an attempt to get closer to “something worth knowing,” she observes that the locals ridicule the earnest expats’ naïve desire to blend in. In “The Other Side of the World,” the final and most powerful story, a former tin prospector in Thailand returns to the U.S. a lonely man. Unable to commit to any woman, and unable to forget his lover in Thailand, he pays for long-term “relationships” with a succession of Asian prostitutes.
Every one of these six stories could stand on its own, but Silber’s arrangement enhances their impact. The narrators’ lives often overlap, as do their realizations about place and self. We are more invested in Annunziata’s story in “Loyalty” because we have already met her daughter from Mike’s point of view in “Allegiance.” And we feel a small pleasure upon realizing that Corinna’s husband was Kit and Toby’s high school science teacher. While not a novel in the expected sense, the book feels novelistic. In place of a typical arc, we have the satisfying—if sometimes tentative—connections between characters and the recurring theme of displacement and love. And there’s more: Toby’s story introduces a sliver of a larger narrative thread—the mystery of the planes’ failure in Vietnam. While the thread does not appear in each story, the solution to the mystery in Owen’s telling of “The Other Side of the World,” provides the kind of resolution many readers expect from a novel.
The stories, too, are novelistic. Each one spans decades in a character’s lifetime, and we follow these expansive arcs fluidly, even cinematically. In “Paradise,” we watch Corinna, a dreamy teenage flapper, move from hurricane-stricken 1920s Florida to humid, lush Thailand—then called Siam. Liberated and eager, she joins her tin-prospecting brother, Owen, in her absolute love of the place and people. Ultimately, she returns to the United States, and Silber takes us gently into the character’s later years, her deep homesickness for Thailand and for the man there who has become, in Owen’s words, “a metaphor for the attachment she couldn’t fix to a whole country.” Corinna maintains her nostalgic distance: “We had loved Siam, but we were pretending to a higher level of Siameseness than we had. The pretending was a great joy to us.”
Each of Silber’s six narrators does his or her share of pretending. But they do so with the best intentions. They pretend because they can’t help themselves; they want to belong to the places and the people they have set their sights on. Like E.M. Forster’s George, in A Room with a View, each character tries to “choose a place where [they] won’t do very much harm.” They have a progressive awareness about their impact when abroad, a sensibility that seems particularly relevant and desirable given the U.S.’s role during the years when this book was written. While in Vietnam, Toby develops an uncomfortable awareness of his place in the country: “Why was I there if I was only going to walk along in my towering foreign fatness, my oblivious overfed height?” Even when they begin their journeys as naïve or even willfully ignorant, these characters eventually learn to look beyond themselves and their desires.
This sort of moral insight is both a strength of the book and its one significant failing. We like these characters; they are intelligent and conscientious, the kind of travelers we would hope to be. The opposite of the ugly American stereotype, they make us feel good about ourselves and humanity. And yet except for Owen–the tin prospector who can only commit to prostitutes–they become too uniformly good, too equally concerned and self-aware, lacking complex views about race and culture and America’s role in foreign affairs. The result is a flattening of tone, a sort of implausible wish-fulfillment journey. Even Owen is disarmingly aware of his flaws. In his final years, he discovers his and his company’s role in the planes’ failure, and, taking the high road, he reveals the reason. After he is fired, Owen begins a slow, redeeming descent into poverty. In his old age, he makes something of a real relationship with Pearl, a prostitute he has been seeing for years.
But even with their uniformly—and sometimes frustratingly—good intentions, the characters of The Size of the World manage to enchant. Silber’s stories beguile; the world opens outward in each. Her prose is crystalline, and her art is pleasingly buried in the simplicity of the sentences. When Annunziata travels to Thailand to care for her estranged daughter in a Bangkok hospital, she realizes her husband’s and her own former destructive xenophobia in one clear sentence: listening to the sounds of the city beyond the hospital walls, she notes, “It humbled me, this noise that had nothing to do with us.” Reading, we are humbled, too. And we experience that bit of magic that one feels in a new and mesmerizing bit of earth, the same sensation Toby experiences as he begins to fall in love with his future wife: “I had the traveler’s idea that something fleeting was blessing me.”
– Via the Washington Post, read an excerpt from The Size of the World.
– At Largehearted Boy, Silber devises a playlist to complement the characters’ lives in The Size of the World.
– Read a short story by Silber: “The High Road” (from the Fall 2002 issue of Ploughshares).
– In this interview for Publisher’s Weekly, Silber talks about how she supported herself before her first publication and between books. Here are more conversations with Silber: at The Millions, at B&N.com, with Otium, and as a guest on Charlie Rose.
– Scroll down on the North Country Public Radio (Canton, NY) site to listen to this audio interview on North Country Public Radio (Canton, NY).
– If you’re looking for a copy of The Size of the World (for yourself, or to wrap in holiday paper), shop your local indie bookseller.