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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Peter Orner Jarringly Exposes the Tragedy of Ordinary Life in Love and Shame and Love

Posted By on Wed, Nov 30, 2011 at 9:30 AM


I usually write in all my books, but couldn't bring myself to do so in Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love. It seemed wrong somehow, like taking a Sharpie to someone's family photo album.

Tightly crafted in language and structure, Orner's chapters don't speak so much as sting. Even when the narrative slaloms back and forth through time and point of view, the shotgun pace keeps you deeply wedded to the characters, their struggles, their almost triumphs. His lyrical, melancholic descriptions of Chicago also echoed the stolid prose of Stuart Dybek's Coast of Chicago, and after reading it, I almost wished I still lived there. LASAL made me want to have a love affair once more with the Second City, which is no easy feat, even if one is prone to masochism, which I am.

LASAL is about moments. In sparse, episodic bursts, the book muscles through four generations of a Jewish family in Chicago, the Poppers. Certain chapters are so A.D.D. they can barely even be considered paragraphs. Some people might find this style jarring. For me, though, the absence was the point. The gaps, the drop-offs -- which somehow also end up being clinging-ons -- the memories loosened by time, and perhaps, willful neglect, all of these serve to further the book's anthem of loss, the vivid, hypnotic nostalgia for a world, a life, a love, that never existed.

Here's a too-long quote that illustrates this:

"One day she put on Bach's cello suites and wept without tears. Popper watched her, gripping his recorder. She trembled. He couldn't feel what she was feeling. He squinted and hummed a little, tried to follow some notes. Mrs. Gerstadt reached for him and dug her fingers into his shoulder blade as if to say, Don't twitch, listen, just listen, you little oaf, listen. And the sound in the room got deeper and more terrible, a long dire moaning and he tried to feel it, in his gut he tried to feel it---

A forgotten afternoon in a too hot room and Mrs. Gerstadt has just taken her hand from his shoulder and given up on him completely. Not only doesn't he have talent, he doesn't even have ears. Bach, and to him it could be the toilet flushing. And then--as now, this minute--all he wants is to jump on Mrs. Gerstadt and crush her sadness with his confusion and his sick sick wants, in the sunroom with the dead plants."

Despite the brevity, or maybe because of it, I found myself reading certain chapters over and over, savoring the minutia, which felt at times like being tenderly bludgeoned. The above vignette about Mrs. Gerstadt caused me to set the book down and write my own blog post about music and regret. This, to me, is the best kind of novel, the kind that compels you into creative action. This is where LASAL excels, all while beautifully capturing the tragic ordinariness of human existence.

The Popper clan, but especially Alex, whose version of the world we see most, beg to know the answers to questions they can't quite articulate, and they cling frantically to the things they've never truly achieved -- love, belonging, purpose. It's a testament to Orner's abilities as a writer that these twingey bouts of depression don't fester in their own cynicism.

LASAL will break your heart, but in the best possible way.

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