on Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner (Catapult)

“For a long time I thought reading would somehow make me a better writer,” says Peter Orner, one of our better writers. “Now I see how ludicrous this is. All the glorious Chekhov in thirteen volumes won’t help me write a sentence that breathes. That comes from somewhere else, somewhere out in the world, where mothers die in car accidents and daughters hide the pain. And yet I have come to the conclusion that reading keeps me alive, period.”

OrnerCover.jpgBut being “somewhere out in the world” entails its own hurdles. “Often, I’m less prone to having an actual experience than I am to relating what I’m experiencing to something, anything, I’ve read,” he says. “It’s as if I don’t quite exist in real time.” This is the animating tug-and-pull of Orner’s restless Am I Alone Here? -- reading kindles the spirit through the empathic notations of writers, in this case, mainly short story makers. But inevitably, the reader must put down one’s book (Orner reads at stop lights) and do something in the world. For Orner this means writing. When not gabbing about a sublime sequence by Virginia Woolf or Wright Morris, he reflects on his youth in Chicago, or his wife’s manic swerves, or the death of his truculent father. The result is a brisk mash-up of flash-lit-crit, auto-fiction, and fidgeting.

Am I Alone Here? comprises 41 brief chapters, beginning with the premise that Orner is rummaging through his book-choked garage (“what I call, without enough irony, my office”), a clutter reflecting his psyche. Rue and regret, the fractious relationship with his father, the inability to write – and the stacked stories, the favorites that yield, as in Gina Berriault’s “Around the Dear Ruin,” “one moment I always have to take my eyes off the page to endure.”

Regard his avowal literally. Orner is unabashedly taken by such moments – not maudlin overflows but sudden and revealing perceptions. “Writers so often restrain themselves from trying to show what love truly looks like in practice out of justifiable fear that it might get sentimental and therefore meaningless,” he says. “But I wonder if our concern about what’s sentimental isn’t actually a manifestation of our sentimentality.” This opinion shows up in his chapter on a Breece D’J Pancake story.

Orner’s focus on telling passages and sentences may seem to suggest that he places a higher premium on the deft handling of emotional content than on the accumulating effects of a writer’s style. But Am I Alone Here? is essentially nothing but an extended fashion statement. In a recent interview, Orner says, “I think part of writing this book is I was just coming clean about being a complete geek. I love this stuff way too much and take it way too seriously.” Here, things come clean through candor and flushing away affectation. This is how we kibbitz when we kibbitz about books. Some samples:

“[James] Salter’s obituary in The New York Times focused, at length, on how unfamous he was. As if fame is the sole basis by which we judge a lifetime of work. When will we cut this shit out? And enough with the writer’s writer stuff. He wrote for readers, if not for millions, then for enough of them.”

“I read ‘The Metamorphosis’ not as an allegory but as a rough morning.”

“Certain books, we are told, capture the zeitgeist of a time and place. It seems to me that this idea is an easy way for the majority population or, more accurately, those who claim to speak for it to pretend to understand itself. Forget the zeitgeist. I don’t believe there is any. Because a given society’s profoundest stories always speak from the margins.”

"Now more than ever I feel under siege by opinions masked as answers ... since when is everything so explainable?"

“I’m not a reader who needs a lot of drama. Life is enough of a roller coaster as it is. No, I want to lift my eyes from the page and see something familiar in a different light. I want to have visions. I think of reading [Kawabata’s] Snow Country and I remember how the book brought me home to the Chicago cold, and how when I was a kid I used to lie facedown in the snow, for as long as I could, to try to freeze my eyelids shut.”

Orner.jpgThe Chicago of his childhood and the Bolinas of his adulthood are the geographic poles of the memoiristic sections (with side trips to Prague and elsewhere). But his praising of literary heroes (Kafka, Babel, Welty, Bellow, etc.) also and often calls for digression. This is the style of a reader’s attention to the world. And the meshing of impulses from beginning to end makes style the book’s unstated über-topic. What else is true style but the refusal to make a hard choice between the orderly and the haphazard? And between the artifice of acting and one’s inescapable character traits? Orner is comical in a nebbishy way – that’s part of his entertaining and endearing act.

Am I Alone Here? brings to mind the many friends who have led me to the books they love. Like Orner, I was taken by the hand toward Bohumil Hrabel and Too Loud A Solitude. “What? You haven’t read Edward Dahlberg?” Such a friend may be concerned about the vitality of your humanity – or simply in minor dread of a lost opportunity for something or other. Thinking about Chekhov, Orner puts it this way: “To concern yourself with the hidden lives of others, including the long dead, especially at a time when you are trying to endure your own pain – is there a more generous act in life, in literature?”

[Published November 1, 2016. 310 pages, $16.95 paperback original]