Am I Here Alone? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live
(New York, NY: Catapult, 2016)
In his intriguing new book Am I Alone Here? Peter Orner plays with the difference between reading and writing as therapeutic human behaviors. In the patches of memoir he intersperses with lyrical essay on literature, Orner is excruciatingly present with his feelings – accounting for the difficult relationship he had with his father, forever unresolvable now that he is dead, and the irreclaimable marriage to M, who, despite doing much better now, refuses to let him use her full name. The purposefulness of fatherhood helps both these losses, though it instills in him the universal fear that we will not be able to protect our children from the cold, hard world, even as we are somehow, for the most part anyway, making it on our own.
It is a comfort for Orner to shift into criticism, where he demonstrates how reading can elevate us above our lives, and provide a soothing dislocation from the personal through assessing how others have transformed observation and as-lived experience into design: setting, character, and plot – this last element Orner’s least favorite imposition, as it speaks to the conceit of false order. Rather Orner likes best the lightning flashes in literature that inspire the conflation of personal memory with appreciation of craft. For instance, in his discussion of To the Lighthouse he digresses: “Plot is what goes on in the rest of the world while I’m trying to remember how the light looked under the door from the hall when I was a kid and couldn’t sleep.” And so he finds the most value in the split screen meditation of the novel’s denouement, in which Lily Briscoe paints to recapture lost wonder, even while she knows it is impossible, just as Orner himself grieves not being able to read Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece for the first time, drunk, aged twenty-two, at Upper Moose Lake with his friends Goshko and Alex. Sometimes there are no words.
In the next chapter, where Orner describes stealing his father’s prized lambskin gloves, we are mindful of the mechanics of turning life into story. The problem for Orner is the gloves have deteriorated and become hard, and so at some point in time he couldn’t have given them back anyway, which makes him painfully aware of his petulance. “I never wanted the gloves,” he speaks to himself. “I only wanted you not to have them.” Sometimes we don’t have to get at understanding indirectly – sometimes we hold it right in our hand, the truth right on our tongue. The tragic paradox is that only when the person to whom we want to speak is gone we can breathe those words into the world. This act of expression, however, is as real as anything, because the world you’re physically in is not the only reality you experience, as Orner articulates in the chapter, “Cheever in Albania,” where his experiences observing a woman with an Afghan hound talking to a man in a café coincide with his meditations on a desultory character named Bascomb from Cheever’s story, “The World of Apples.” Orner’s consciousness splits between the story, where Bascomb has just slept with his maid, and the world of the café, where the couple’s conversation comes to an anticlimactic end, inspiring him to quip: “Sex itself is not always better than thinking about sex, and thinking lasts longer.” But the implication of the line is that sometimes it is better to have sex, and not just because the life of the mind needs a real-world analogue. That couple in the café is not a metaphor worth contemplating. Sometimes we’re just lonely.
Orner’s courage to face his reality through reading and writing – why he prefers the immediacy of image to language play and the contrivance of plot – comes through when he narrates moments of his life, like when the itinerary for a regret tour takes him back to Prague, where he used to live with his ex-wife. Orner walks through familiar terrain to his old apartment building and notices that his “landlord’s name is still on a piece of ragged tape next to the buzzer…It seemed like a completely unnecessary miracle.” After the buzz goes unanswered, he peels off the piece of tape and puts it in his pocket, proving he knows the ravages of time and gravity will at some point cause the tape to fall and stick to one of the resident’s shoes, only to fall off on the tram. But this is not metaphor; it is just what he did to affirm he was once, and now again, here.
Orner closes with a vignette that underscores his belief in the power of a static, well-rendered scene. He describes eating alone at a San Francisco taqueria called Pancho Villa – the refrain “Last night, at Pancho Villa” recalling for me the melancholy hue of Howl, especially the stanza: “who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale / beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen / jukebox.” At Pancho Villa the who is him, and this setting, like Bickford’s, is nothing special, the specter of mutual annihilation pretty much still omnipresent – and so the Pancho Villa taqueria is simply where Orner, hungry and impatient, waits for a woman to leave her table. Surrounded by other diners upset that the Giants just lost a World Series game, Orner eats his burrito and is buffeted by another wave of grief over the father he would never know, and so he steadies himself with perception, with observation, noticing “Pancho Villa himself rides on a horse on top of the drinks cooler. On the back wall, near the bathrooms, he heigh-ho’s across Chihuahua.” He also notices (and feels regretful) that he pushed that woman from her seat with his own needs, because life is mostly a collection of mundane details. Sometimes, like Pancho Villa on that cooler, they are worth noticing, sometimes they are worth our time to put down in words, and sometimes they are even worth reading about.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.