Category Archives: van booy

Poetic Connection: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

It is rare to find an author who sees people the way that you do and in an age where it seems like so many modern authors are jaded and whose characters are disgruntled, bored, angry adults, reading Van Booy’s work is a breath of fresh air.  His prose is like poetry and it is impossible for me to not get caught up in them.  My favorite book of last summer was Everything Beautiful Began After and then I immediately sought out his collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love.  While I was browsing at my local book store, surprisingly open on the 4th of July, I saw on the front table that he had a new book out and I couldn’t help myself even though I have a large stack of books to read on my nightstand already.

As I meet his characters, they are still open to the possibility of beauty and hope, even if it has felt long vanished from their lives.  And this I believe is what a lot of today’s modern characters–and people, of course–are in desperate need of:  tiny moments that can begin to rewire the joy that has seeped out of living.

The Illusion of Separateness opens with a quote from monk Thich Nhat Hanh: We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  The concept that Van Booy carries throughout his story is that the feeling of separateness is an illusion.  I wonder about the original context of the quote and what the “here” is meant to convey.  It could be on earth.  It could mean in this moment.  Or it could mean in an intentional place–literal or psychological–a readiness to face where life has taken us.  And perhaps it is in the journey of awakening we realize it is often those tiny moments of beauty and longing that connect us to those around us, whether we realize it or not.  In the book, that is part of the beautiful mystery.  The reader, by the end, is able to see the connections between the vignettes of characters presented to us from 1939 to 2010, from England to the East coast of the United States, but not all of the characters see the connections that draw them together–but–they each are able to find a bit of peace as they begin to see themselves in the larger context of humanity:

We all have different lives, Martin believes–but in the end probably feel the same things, and regret the fear we thought might somehow sustain us (16-17).

In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment–we are all defined by something we can’t change (82).

Everyone was searching, he thought–trying to unravel the knot of their lives (152).

I’m not sure when life becomes that knot–but once we realize that nearly everyone feels it, all of a sudden just that knowledge lifts some of the separateness.  Not just empathy but community is born out of the shared brokenness–but through it has the ability to make life beautiful and poetic.
And of course, it brings the reader back to what I probably write about too much on here: why we need to read literature to understand humanity–and let our understanding of characters help us to look for the lives behind the faces we pass each day.

One of my favorite parts of the book (beyond the achingly beautiful character sketches) was that the characters took care of each other–often as strangers.  Be it with a bag of tomatoes or shelter in a war field.  Just like all of my favorite books do, this one makes me want to look for more poetry and hope in the cracks and corners of my world.

How reading short stories is reminding me to live more reflectively and intentionally.

I recently read a novel that could be described as a collection of somewhat interwoven short stories called Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. I was drawn to this book because it seeks to explore the moment’s that shape women’s identity as women.  In hindsight, I wish I had read it slowly, as there wasn’t an overall character arc for each character, but a few snapshots of their lives.

This summer I read Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy and fell in love with his rich, poetic style of prose.  While on a walk through the West Village I found a collection of his short stories called The Secret Lives of People in Love and began making my way through them.  What I’ve learned, though, is that for me, short stories for me are best read slowly and sporadically.  If I read them as a novel, I don’t take the time to stop and think about what the author is trying to say in each one or mull over the small details that speak into human existence.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that I am more grounded as a person when I’m letting my reading wash over my mind and impact the way I’m looking at the world.  I read through the first 13 of Van Booy’s 19 stories so quickly that my brain didn’t have time to consider the weight of lines like: “Without memory, he thought, man would be invincible.” One of the reason’s I bought Schappell’s book was because I wanted to think about how the female identity is formed–especially as I am teaching girls at such a critical developmental stage and stocking my library with books that they will be reading and thinking about.

This is not to say that all of my reading is deep and reflective.  The other book I’m in the middle of is The Snowman, a thriller by Jo Nesbo, which has been a distractive force and an escape from life this week.  Sometimes I need reading for that just as much as the kind that makes me stop and look at life differently.  But, for now it is time to slow down.  It is time to breathe deeply and reflect, especially in the midst of the devastation of my city and surrounding ones post-hurricane.  The roots that my reading deepens can then be taken out into the world, to be on the look out for small moments of poetry and to develop an eye that is sensitive to the human story happening all around me.

On beauty and rebuilding from brokenness.

This has been a summer of devouring books.  All I want to do is sit and read.  The other morning I walked to get some breakfast and a coffee and took it up to Prospect Park with about half of Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After.  I thought that I would stay for a half hour or so, but I got so lost that I remained on my shady bench for almost two hours and finished the book.  It left me a bit speechless and heartbroken, so I was glad to have been in the park and have a walk home to begin to process.

I did some research, as I usually do, on Van Booy when I finished the book and learned that he has dealt with tremendous loss in his life prior to publishing this story, which made what the characters went through feel more weighty to me.  This interview also provided some sweet insight into Van Booy as a person and I was able to understand his style of writing a bit more.  

The story begins with a prologue from the voice of a ten year old girl, simple and poetic; she is a newcomer to thinking about life.  She hopes to hear her parents’ love story at dinner and the prologue ends with: “All she knows is that someone fell, and that everything beautiful began after,” (7).  Then the story begins and the reader is left not knowing which characters are the parents to this child.

The book is set in Athens and the three main characters all went there in an attempt to escape not necessarily their lives, but the pain they have long carried with them.  Rebecca has left her job as a flight attendant to pursue painting.  George is there to study ancient languages.  Henry is there as a archaeologist.  The friendship and love that follows is beautiful and unexpected.  Then the story is wrought with tragedy, in the city of ancient Greek tragedy.  It is clear that this is a story not just about these characters, but about the coping and living with brokenness that people have done for all of time.  The second half follows how the characters try to pick up the pieces:

“A man on an upside-down bucket is selling small tubes of glue from a folding table.  On the table are things glued together.  He doesn’t know where the museum is but asks if anything you have is broken.  ‘Everything,’ you say in Greek.  He puts a tube of glue in your hands.  You hold out a few coins, but he pushes them away,” (293).  
Slowly, the characters, like the city they find themselves in, begin to rebuild.  None of them is able to forget and each of them is forever changed and they attempt to find the balance of remembering the beauty of what was and continuing to look for beauty in a world that is capable of crumbling.  This always resonates with me and I’ve written about it quite a bit.  Every conversation I have with friends in the midst of heartbreak, or even just in talking about what the definition of good living, is grounded in paying attention to the small, simple pieces of beauty in the world, past or present, which is why I loved the metaphor of what Henry became: “He is a curator. He reconstructs scenes from the past to illustrate their beauty and significance.”  He didn’t try to completely forget the moments of beauty from his past, but rather recognize their worth. “He is enchanted by the beauty of small things: hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter’s day,” (401). That is how I want to live. 

The end of the book comes back to the girl from the prologue and I found myself thinking about how in her story, everything beautiful began after people born before her experienced great pain.  That switch in perspective is beautiful in and of itself.