It’s clear that Michael Kimball’s novel, Us, recently published by Tyrant Books, has affected many writers and readers more deeply and personally than the average novel (whatever that is). I’ve read review after review of this amazing book that turns back on itself and becomes a sort of self-examination by the reviewer. I think that says more about the brilliance of Kimball’s novel than it does about us readers, thoughtful and introspective though we may be.
The book does precisely what I think it is intended to do: provide the reader with a sort of elderly Everyman to act as a guide, the events of his last year serving as a sort of catalyst – a launching point for our own meditations on death and love. The book is beautifully, cleanly written, extremely moving, and yet the details given–which are numerous–are common details, memories that could belong to almost any older man’s life who grew up in a certain place during a certain time. I know I found myself thinking, My god, this is my grandfather, and then, But of course, this is anyone’s grandfather. This is anyone’s father, or brother, or uncle. The bits in between the old man’s story that seem to be Kimball’s or a Kimball-double’s thoughts about the old man–or maybe not–perhaps his grandmother, grandfather, family – function almost like a demonstration. Here, he is saying, here is my own history with death. Write your own in the margins.
And, inevitably, we do. We’re forced to. Like probably every single writer I know, my mind is preoccupied with death a good bit more than the average person’s. I’ve been afraid of dying, obsessed with death and all the ways you can die, since I was very small. My mother used to say it was because I had a strong imagination, and I imagine something like that is probably true. When you lie awake at night, thinking of all the things in the world you can think of, lots and lots of those things are going to involve death or endings in some way. When I was young, though, I wasn’t afraid and it didn’t really bother me, as morbid as it seemed. Death was part of life and it happened to everyone; I saw my great-aunt in her casket and she was old, everyone who died was old. Death was old people. And it seemed okay and right.
When I got a little older, I understood that I would end one day–and I might not even be old when it happened. I started to fear for my own mortality. I became a borderline hypochondriac, still am, and I’ll bet that condition afflicts more writers on average than other people, too. I lost someone I loved, and then another someone, and then a beloved pet, and I watched my grandfather fall apart after the death of his wife, and then I realized that the only thing more terrifying than the thought of my own death is the thought of the people I love dying.
I met my now-husband, who is my best friend, and suddenly I became a person who demands phone calls, text messages, reassurances: when are you leaving? When will you be back? Drive safely, be careful crossing the street, if the neighborhood looks sketchy take a cab. I became a worrywart because of my selfish fear of death. I check on my cats at night to make sure they’re okay. Every time someone’s name trends on Twitter I hold my breath until I’ve checked if they’re dead. I don’t even have children yet–I’m honestly terrified of what will happen when I have my very own human to worry over. I might just collapse entirely.
Anyhow. The fact that I’m neurotic cannot be news to many readers of this blog. Nor is my particular neurosis original or new. The important thing about all of this baggage is simply that it is what I brought to Michael Kimball’s wonderful book, and it fastened itself around my neck as I read, got in my eyes, swam in my bloodstream, infected my brain. The book made it happen. Us became a story about my grandfather, about my husband, about the people I love and the loss I fear. It is a book I could not have endured, could not have read just a few years ago.
But now that I am a little bit older, I have come to see loss as the fuel for love, the thing that makes pain and also passion possible. It is the thing that makes us cling to one another a little more, that makes us count our days together and shut out scary thoughts during our nights together. Love is loss, and that makes it darkly, sadly beautiful. Kimball clearly understands this, and moreover he makes loss a page-turner, a story we can’t put down although of course we know the ending. We are so terribly, terribly familiar with this ending. It is a testament to Kimball’s great talent and simple-but-profound insights that we are willing, even eager, in his hands, to come yet again to this ending with him.
In the section by the grandson, Kimball’s narrator admits his own fear, admits his preoccupation with death, but also celebrates the flip side, life, how love can accumulate, can build, can grow and deepen in the face of loss. I think Kimball understands, in a way that some of our own friends and family do not, that many of us obsessed with death are not obsessed with the dark. We are obsessed with the light, and we fear most of all to leave it behind.
Love and death–the grandest, most universal themes to write–and yet Kimball makes them feel so familiar, so almost comfortable, so real and true and sad, with his pitch-perfect use of repetition, recitation, and lists. His old man narrator is not a writer, nor such a deep thinker–and the way that Kimball writes him makes use of his strong simple thoughts in a way that is so much more devastating for being so matter-of-fact. So ordinary. Yet in showing us ordinary, everyday loss, Kimball is really telling us that all loves are extraordinary. That all the inevitable, heartbreaking losses on this earth have been or will be unique stories to someone. That time will make stories of us all.