[26 July 2009]
Joan Silber is a writer’s writer: resolutely old-fashioned in the best sort of way. You will not find drawings, blank pages, or talking kangaroos in a Silber novel. You will not find a character named Joan Silber. What you will find are carefully constructed, complex narratives laid out sentence by meticulous sentence.
Though Silber’s won a few literary prizes and been nominated for even more, she’s never quite broken through to the kind of widespread fame she deserves. As earnestly postmodern novels and teenage vampire books dominate literature’s shrinking limelight, Silber has steadily created a lovely body of work.
Her latest novel, The Size of the World examines what it means to be a displaced American. Set in Vietnam (spelled Viet Nam throughout the novel), Thailand, Italy, Mexico, and the United States, The Size of the World follows five characters through their loosely intersecting lives.
The first narrator, Toby, is a naïve young engineer working for Bydex systems, provider of parts to the United States Armed Services and their planes in Vietnam. Partnered with the nearly mute Ernst, reputedly a genius, Toby is sent to Saigon to try and figure out why Bydex planes are malfunctioning.
Ernst’s silent, sarcastic demeanor soon has the other Americans in Saigon certain he is CIA. Toby, overwhelmed by his surroundings and the outright shadiness of the people he encounters, is in over his head. To his credit, he realizes this much.
When he strikes up a friendship with the hotel bellhop, only to learn this gentle, quiet father of three has bombed a hotel, his innocence is shattered. Yet he still admires Ernst’s seemingly unshakable mien. When the men are moved to Da Nang, life becomes more dangerous.
Here the tables turn, with inexperienced Toby saving Ernst’s life. When the men are flown to Bangkok to rest, Toby meets his future wife, a Thai nurse named Toon. He stays, stumbling at times with the culture and his work. But he loves his wife and their two children—one missing her hand, thanks to her father’s exposure to Agent Orange—far too much to leave what has become home.
In the next story we hear from Kit, Toby’s high school girlfriend. The bemused recipient of Toby’s early cards and phone calls from Bydex, where he was terribly lonely, Kit now has more immediate concerns. Her once-happy marriage is failing.
She leaves her husband, taking her toddler Phoebe and befriending Gina, another single mother. The women decide to drive to Chiapas, where they rent a house in San Cristóbal de las Casas. For a while all is well, but resentment is simmering: the townspeople are suspicious of these American hipis who do no work. Unmarried mothers are an anomaly, and here are two, one of them (Gina) carrying on multiple affairs.
The atmosphere turns hostile, then frightening when a police officer barges into the house, manhandling Kit while questioning her harshly. Badly shaken, she returns home, wiser to one of themes woven through the book, that of the colonial’s place.
The Size of the World’s characters are all longing to stay where they are or, in the cases of those who return stateside, forever longing for foreign lands. Silber’s people reminded me of graduate students I knew who worked in Africa: to a person, they described the harsh, even hideous living conditions. To a person, they were counting the days until they could return.
Yet Silber’s characters face—or ignore, to their detriment—what it means to be the proverbial Ugly American in a place where they are unwanted. Most often these blithe citizens are in Thailand or Vietnam, where cultural mores dictate a false politeness that keeps the outsiders obliviously at bay. When Corinna, orphaned in her 20s, rapidly becoming a spinster, joins her tin-prospecting brother Owen in Pattani, Siam, she entertains a crush on Owen’s “man”, Zain.
Zain is married with children, which doesn’t stop Corinna’s fantasies, though outwardly she is the soul of good manners. Owen finds Corinna a hut, a Siamese servant named Som, and introduces her to the local expatriates, who run a missionary school. The educational enterprise, with its Western biases, is both ridiculous and deeply insulting to the native community. When Owen, well in the grip of “tin fever”, falls ill with malaria, he goes home.
But Corinna stubbornly stays on, in love with Siamese life, teaching at the missionary school, where she meets and marries fellow teacher Christopher. When World War II begins brewing, Corinna is forced to leave. Yet Siam—she never gets accustomed to saying “Thailand”—has forever marked her, leaving her, Owen notes, “a little sour”.
Mike, a history professor who has never traveled, is happy man until his wife abruptly leaves him. Mike is struggling to reassemble his life when Viana, a former teenage girlfriend, returns to the United States from Thailand. Her Thai husband, Niwet (grandson of Zain), was killed by drunk driver; her parents flew across the world to fetch her and their grandchild, Rosa.
Viana and Mike rekindle their relationship. It’s a rocky business. Viana misses Niwet, her friend Toon, and Niwet’s extended family. She maintains email contact with them, even after marrying Mike and beginning nursing school.
Then 9/11 happens. The upheaval means Viana spends even more time frantically emailing across the world in a language her husband doesn’t speak. Mike is angry and jealous until the awful night Viana doesn’t come home: the police, reading her email, have picked her up for questioning. Though she is cleared, the experience brings the couple together while radicalizing them politically.
From Mike the story moves to Viana’s mother, Annunziata. The young Nunzia is a sheltered Sicilian girl whose adored brother, Piddu, has joined the fascists fighting the Americans. The war seems remote, even as Nunzia’s brother-in-law, Antonello, also leaves their tiny village to fight.
But the worst happens, exacerbated by food shortages and poverty. When Antonello, now in America, sends for his wife, Nunzia’s husband Umberto gets ideas. They, too will go live in America. Nunzia is unhappy about leaving her family, but they move to Hoboken, where Umberto does well.
The couple have three children, who thrive. Outwardly a timid, undereducated housewife, Nunzia is smarter than she realizes. When Viana runs off to Thailand and her Niwet, Umberto disowns her. But Nunzia understands:
I knew why she believed–with all her heart, it seemed—that she couldn’t live without this man: it was because we had protected her from everything. If her life had been harder and harsher, she never would have wrecked herself for love. The idea would have been ridiculous. She would have known better without even thinking.
When the couple fly to Thailand after Niwet’s death, visiting the grief-stricken, dazed Viana in the hospital, Nunzia thinks: “Whoever God is, it’s better not to take your own hellish troubles personally, because…what’s happened to you keeps happening over and over.” Later, “The great, swarming world—I knew more of it now, didn’t I? Even I.”
The novel closes with Owen, now a washed up, aging alcoholic. Once a salesman for Bydex, he lost his job upon realizing the screws he was selling were defective. He complained to management, who took legal action against him. Now living a marginal life in San Francisco, he falls into a relationship with Pearl, a Chinese prostitute.
Initially their interactions are based on purely financial exchange. But as Owen grows poorer and less able to underwrite Pearl’s lifestyle, she leaves him, only to return to his side after he takes a serious fall.
He awakens to find her at his side; the two begin their relationship anew, older, celibate, worried about Pearl’s son Lincoln, who has joined the Navy and is floating somewhere off Vietnam’s coast. Owen feels personally responsible for Lincoln’s enlistment, for the very fact of Vietnam; when Lincoln returns, mildly injured, Owen is awash in gratitude, an old man grateful for the presence of this limping surrogate son, a boy born of a unknown American father and a Chinese woman from the other side of the enormous world.