Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote to his beloved Sophia that “nobody ever had a wife but me.” Reading Michael Kimball’s recently published Us (Tyrant Books), you will find that the protagonist is lost (and found) within Hawthorne’s perspective, which is to say that he is lost in love. And you’ll find yourself caring so much for this novel’s elderly couple that its very title becomes especially poignant. While the title, Us, is meant to primarily signify these two people, I found myself pulled into their orbit, sharing in the losses one after the other. The paradox or illusion of marriage, that two become one, is at the heart of this book, complicating this seemingly magical and beautiful union by carefully delineating how mortality inevitably destroys this union and everything else, especially for the one left behind. These are some things that no one wants to face or think about. But Michael Kimball faces mortality directly, confronting the passionate life in the most poetic sentences I’ve read from a fiction writer in a long time. And by poetic, I don’t mean that the prose is prettified with a lot of adjectives and fancy syntactical flourishes. It is poetic in the sense that the sentences seem made, hewn, created by a mind and hand that love the way we think and talk in sentences. Take for example how the husband carefully observes a suitcase he takes to the hospital with the things he feels his wife will need: “I let the locks snap open and it sounded as if we were on vacation.” No, this isn’t a day at the beach they’re having. And as he tries to feed his weak and convalescing wife, he tells us: “The spoon trembled in my hand too.” The novel is full of sentences like this—sentences that are on the surface, ordinary, but are, upon further reflection, simply extraordinary—extraordinary because of their poignancy and for their emotional and psychological accuracy.
In life we are together and alone, and this is the crux of Kimball’s heartbreaking tale. His narrator alone can reveal the mundane or extraordinary details of his days, the feelings of suffering or comfort, and the deep relationship he had and still has with his dying wife; yet his character in this novel is dependent upon his lifelong passion for another. This husband is who he is by virtue of his wife, that is, he is a presence only in the face of absence: her diminishing presence. You don’t want this rendering of passion to end, as you wouldn’t want any love to end.
When sickness and death come knocking on the door of the house of the marriage of this book, we share a real sense of fear with the husband. Beyond fear, though, we are compelled to witness this man saved by a childlike innocence that we all hope still stirs within us: “I thought it might help my wife stay awake if I stayed awake,” the husband confesses. The husband, at one point early in the novel, is afraid to turn his car off because he thinks his wife might stop breathing. This may, on the surface, seem silly, but these actions take on a heroic quality, accurately reflective of a mind in great distress. Later in the book Kimball himself becomes writes himself into the novel as a second narrator. I admit that I raised my eyebrows when I saw this intrusion emerging, and I wondered if it were merely an effect: some sassy, self-reflexive, postmodern maneuver. The further I moved through the novel, however, the more I understood how it worked. I understood that Kimball wanted to find a way to recover his grandparents’ lost story. With Kimball’s presence as narrator in the novel we see his longing to be more intimately a part of their relationship. The notion of the pronoun, Us, expands in this story to include Kimball and, ultimately, the reader. Toward the end of the novel Kimball writes: “I hear people who aren’t here saying things to me and I write them down.” I think of this as a fine definition of fiction: aloneness and togetherness meeting on the page.
After having finished one of the saddest books I’ll probably ever read, I was filled with a strange exuberance. Perhaps this joy is rooted in the hope that when we suffer, someone might be there to care for us so much that they find the words for our suffering, and death doesn’t have to end with the insult of silence. If death is a sentence, Michael Kimball has found its words.
John Poch is the editor of 32 Poems Magazine. His latest book is Dolls (Orchises Press 2009).