THE KINDNESS OF NEIGHBORSby Polly Rosenwaike
If I Loved You,
I Would Tell You This
Random House, 2010
Several months ago, Robin Black was featured in the New York Times Magazine’s “Lives” column, relating her brush with reality TV. The extremely disheveled outward appearance of her house made it a candidate for a show she jokingly calls Your Neighbors Must Really Hate You. Black hints at the years of emotional tumult inside that house. It ultimately made her family stronger, she suggests, “[b]ut the evidence of our faltering remained, the façade of our home stubbornly unable to mend itself.”
Black’s first collection of stories explores falterings in kitchens, backyards, and schoolrooms; at home and on trips abroad. Sometimes the stumblings of men and women, children and grandparents, lead to insight, as in “The Guide,” with a father’s realization that his blind daughter can see straight into him. Sometimes they just lead to further stumbling. In “Pine,” a woman sleeps with her best friend, tries to return him to best friend status, and then loses him. As in reality of the non-TV kind, a difficult conversation, a small tragedy, can bring a moment of grace or further entrenchment in the muddle. Occasionally Black spends more words than she needs detailing her characters’ emotional states and habits of rationalization. It’s okay, you want to tell her. We understand: it’s complicated. Although Black could afford to cut back in the affective play-by-play, the depth of feeling with which she approaches familial grievances, childhood bewilderment, and late-life loneliness makes for a wise and involving collection.
Though the deaths in these stories usually happen off stage, the dead and the soon to die haunt the collection. In “…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived,” a mother must tell her teenage son that his best friend has been killed in a car accident. Her brother died when they were kids, and though his picture is hidden away in her dresser, her own kids “know about him without my ever having had to tell either of them. Uncle Terry, he would have been. It’s family information. The kind that travels in the air that children breathe.” In “Immortalizing John Parker,” an elderly portrait artist named Clara struggles to paint a man with dementia who “sees himself leaving, understands about time—as she does.” Watching streetlights come to life on a snowy evening, Clara “sees the world around her as animated, spirited. Nothing truly dead. Nothing truly dead, except the dead,” which is, of course, the rub. Whether by accident or illness, in youth or at an advanced age, what’s gone is gone. Kate in “The History of the World,” “isn’t surprised by the lightness of her brother’s ashes.” Years earlier, “she was handed her mother, in a similar cardboard box.”
Death is real to Black’s characters, while the living don’t often seem real to each other. In “Tableau Vivant,” a woman overhears her married daughter with a lover and responds as she did when her daughter was a teenager: “Whatever sex her children were having was no more real sex to her than the stuff in their diapers had been real shit. Our children exist in some not quite human realm, she’d long before decided. They aren’t exactly people to us.” Elsewhere in the collection, children are unable to access the most significant experiences of their parents.
In the title story, a neighbor’s cold indifference prompts the storytelling. The man living next door to the narrator wants to build a solid wood fence between their houses, blocking her view and making it impossible for her to park by her front door. Curt letters have been exchanged, but the story itself is a direct appeal to the seemingly compassionless neighbor: “If I loved you, I would tell you this: I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer…For all you know we have a brain-damaged son living in an inadequate institution 30 miles from our house.”
As Black says in the New York Times Magazine piece about her real-life house, the fantasy of a reality show is that your failings are turned into attributes, that they get people to tune in, if only for an hour, to your troubled life. Black’s house didn’t make the final cut, and she and her family went back to their own private reality. Her fictional character implores the aloof neighbor: “I want you to imagine that I have a life. A life that matters. You should care about my life.” Good fiction, of course, makes us care about the lives of people we will never meet, people who don’t even exist at all