ABORIGINAL LOVEby J.T. Price
Joanna Clapps Herman
No Longer and Not Yet,
(Excelsior Editions, 2014)
“Everyone moves, carries stuff, backpacks, gym bags, but mostly some idea of themselves.” So proceed the pedestrians on Joanna Clapps Herman’s Upper West Side, the setting for her debut collection of interwoven short stories, No Longer and Not Yet. Lives in transit are both subject and theme to Herman’s fiction, the manner in which one moment is founded on another. Akin to the boutiques that line the UWS, Herman explores topics visible to many, but known to a select few: second marriages on the brink of dissolution over the course of Italian getaways; how to address a misguided kindergarten teacher when tuition runs 20 grand (hint: do not slap her, even if your prerogative as a mother tells you that you can); what to do when the death of a dear friend reveals his academic pedigree to have been utterly bogus; the question of whether the population of Manhattan really might be said to divide into therapists and the therapy-bound; the love-worthiness of a stainless steel countertop while awaiting the return of a curfew-flouting son. They are not topics with cut-and-dry answers, but like the hawks that soar famously over the skies of Manhattan, Herman takes her swoops: hawks, too, have their bit part in this collection.
The approach to storytelling is discontinuous, fragmentary, but layered like a study of the sedimentary ridges in Central Park. Each chapter, or story, every one titled, range in length from oceanic to ephemeral. Tess and Max are lovers who have found one another midway through their lives’ journeys. Naomi is the best friend who fixes all of her friends’ dilemmas via old-fashioned telephone conversation (the narrative timeline spans roughly 20 years, although chronological specifics are scarce); meanwhile, the therapist Naomi encounters some difficulty with the borders of her own day-in-day-out. David is a sensitive, well-married PhD who finds a perch at a prep school to be the perfect flight from dead-end academia. The stories wind and wend, pivot points blending into each other. Only the Upper West Side is constant.
“Who doesn’t like lively?” Naomi asks of friends, “I thought that was a given on the Upper West Side.” Hannah Arendt, so it happens, once lived in David’s building—Naomi’s building too. Does asking someone who would remember her to give accounts of Arendt’s everyday demeanor, the way in which she treated strangers, keep the intellectual’s firebrand ghost busy? The philosopher, Heidegger, her illicit lover and a recovering Nazi to boot, was never one for firmly prescriptive answers. These characters: they wonder about her and about him and what it is to lead a life so fit for discussion, so patently citable.
Yet Herman makes room for larger considerations, too—unless they are all akin?—when, for example, David, ambitions gaining steam, reflects:
Death, when you weren’t actually faced with it, was something like… a small boat in a large body of water going toward a vague line that never came closer—death always the same safe distance from your boat. No matter how long you moved toward it, it continued to move off ahead of you. Then when someone you knew died, death appeared in your boat, and you were supposed to contend with its abrupt, confusing arrival, for which you had no talent, no gift. It was never as if you came to believe it. You were just very confused. Full of refusal. After a time of stunned confusion it moved back out there far away where it belonged. And wasn’t considered again until it had to be again. The horizon: what is not yet.
And so on and why not. New Yorkers live their lives, discover “aboriginal love,” encounter turns over the course of the years that anywhere else would scream high drama. In New York City, it is just another day.
“Let’s go home, get in bed, and lie back into all of our pillows and pull up our thick comforter and read,” says Max to Tess. A horizon awaits.