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.