Chicago’s Love And Shame

Peter Orner's New Book is Refreshing Departure From Nostalgia

By Shoshana Olidort

Published January 02, 2012, issue of January 06, 2012.
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There’s a sense of volatility in this passage, which constitutes a complete chapter in this novel. The images are simple yet suggestive: the half-open door a symbol of stagnation, perhaps, and the empty holes a void that keeps growing. The dog has nothing to hide, but what about everyone else — from the baby, who can only wail, to the paper towel now yellow with intimations of something gone awry? Even the spaces between the words feel heavy with the weight of what is left unsaid. It’s as if the silence itself were pregnant with the promise of pain.

Philip calls Highland Park “Dullsville” and says that they “keep waiting for something to happen, anything, and nothing ever does….” Except, of course, that one day something will happen: Miriam will cheat on Philip with his friend, Hal Rosencrantz, then move away with their sons, and the humdrum of their suburban life will, no doubt, suddenly seem, in hindsight, edenic. Years after the painful divorce, Philip’s eyes will sag, “the droop of all the years without her.”

There are obvious patterns in the Popper family: The men fall hard for beautiful, strong women who can’t, or won’t, love them back. The tragedy is in the inevitability of it all, and in the shame of having one’s love rejected, as if one has been played for a fool, which is indeed how things are for the Popper men. As for the women in this novel, one never gets a very good sense of their internal lives. This may be one of the novel’s few flaws. More likely, it’s Orner’s way of communicating the impossibility of love. In neglecting to flesh out his female characters, Orner seems to be suggesting that the object of one’s love is always unknowable, a mystery.

Of the Popper men, it’s Philip who gets the most badly burnt, but there’s enough pain for them all. When Seymour reaches to rub the back of his wife’s neck as they sit together in a nightclub, she “shifts in her seat, only inches, but enough for his fingers to dangle, for a moment, before he retreats them to his drink.” The purposeful clumsiness of such sentences evokes the pervasive sense of shame in this novel, a shame that renders one necessarily unsmooth.

Decades later, soon after Alexander and his girlfriend, Kat, discover that she’s pregnant, Kat — who wants to keep the baby — decides the two of them are history. “Why now, of all times?” Alexander is stunned. “Wouldn’t now be better?” Kat replies.

For the second time in the course of this novel, Alexander’s world is shattered by the forces of love. The crushing disappointment makes one wish that Alexander were still just a kid playing with his brother Leo, who tells him: “Okay, listen Alexanderplatz, you be the Jews on the run, I’m Pharaoh,” so that he can flee to his private spot in the backyard…

A place where nobody cut down the bramble or the stunted sun-starved trees and nobody mowed the long stalks of prairie grass into submission. A tiny wild corner where Hollis stored the storm windows under an old green tarp… an upside-down wheelbarrow and a rusted-out jungle gym like a mangled octopus… an old baby carriage with a thick rubber hood and cracked white-wall tires.

… the place, where Alexander “used to dig himself a cave in the mound of raked and forgotten leaves.”

But Poppers don’t easily forget. When Alexander visits his aging father and tries to reconstruct the story of how the family came undone all those years back, his father doesn’t want to talk about what happened. “What’s the big story?” he asks. “I’m only trying to build a record,” says Alexander. “You’re building ruins,” his father replies.

Shoshana Olidort is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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