Us by Michael Kimball. Tyrant Books, 180 pp., $14.95.
Michael Kimball’s novella Us originally appeared in the U.K. under the title How Much of Us There Was. Tyrant Books has now brought it out in the United States, where Kimball was born and lives, and his website lists the widespread praise that the book has received. Here are but two of the many accolades: “disarmingly simple, gorgeously structured, and as achingly sad a book as I have ever read. I had to stop a couple of times. I really did” (Matthew Simmons, HTMLGIANT); “Michael Kimball’s Us is heartbreakingly lovely . . . the writing’s a pleasure, and sometimes you just need to read something with weight” (The Paris Review). But a closer examination of Us makes one wonder if the book deserves such rapturous praise.
At first, the book’s content seems likely to be stark and affecting. A man, eventually identified as Grandfather Oliver, is woken in the night by his wife’s shaking and “seizing up.” An ambulance takes Grandmother Oliver to the hospital where she lies for an unspecified time in a coma, until she slowly returns to consciousness. It takes her more time to get back the ability to talk and move, but she does, and is well enough to be discharged. She returns home under the care of her husband. This goes well enough for a while, but both are aware of the preciousness of the time left to them, as expressed in the chapter “How We Slowed Our Time Down”:
We found ways to make our days longer. We followed the sun around our house—from our bedroom and the bathroom in the morning, to the kitchen through noon, the living room through the afternoon, and the dining room for the evening.
At night, we turned all the lights in every room of our house on. We turned the lights on the front porch on. We turned the lights on the back porch and over the garage on too. We wanted to keep the darkness that surrounded our house and us as far away from us as we could.
Inevitably the wife deteriorates, and the husband calls the doctor, “but he said that he couldn’t help her anymore unless we took her back to the hospital. But I couldn’t take her back there or think of any other way to help her anymore.” The couple practice “home death,” and eventually take sleeping pills together. The wife dies; the husband lives on to see to her funeral and burial, and to grieve.
Though this is ostensibly a sad and simple story, two aspects of the writing blunt its emotional impact. Us is told in the voices of two main characters. The first is the husband/grandfather. The second is the unnamed grandson. (Oliver’s wife speaks a few times in his dreams.) This grandson pops up now and then to offer his opinions on death and describe how his grandfather exists after the death of the grandmother. He gives us a picture of what the grandfather does (such as trying to talk to spirits), and supplies certain information (only the necessary information) about family members. Notably, his speech is quite similar, in its orderly sentences, muted tones, and colorlessness, to his grandfather’s.
Here, for instance, is the grandson reflecting on his wife’s recovery from ear surgery:
She slept in our bed by herself and I stayed far enough away so that I would not bother her when she could sleep—even though she still couldn’t really hear—but near enough to her so that I could hear her if she woke or needed anything or needed me.
The grandson refers to relatives of his who had become seriously sick: “Nobody ever really got any better. Everybody died inside a hospital or came home from the hospital and died in their bed.” Compare that to Grandfather Oliver when he relates searching for his wife after her admittance: “Some of the people didn’t move or look at me when I looked inside their hospital room at them. They were dying in different ways and at different speeds.”
While numbness may be appropriate for Grandfather Oliver, who has been woken by his wife’s violent incident, after which his life is never the same, the grandson, who states he’s seen many relatives die “inside a hospital,” surely would feel loss in a personal manner and express it in his own terms. Yet instead of giving the grandson his own way of speaking, Kimball relies on a darker typeface to distinguish him from Oliver, and this is insufficient. The grandson’s language, like his grandfather’s, is filled with repeated words—death, dying, hospital, and so on—and his clauses rarely stray far from the simple. This choice on Kimball’s part denies a two-generation gap in sensibility, and it allows the repetitiveness to lead characters into babble. The effect is soporific. Sweeping generalizations of those who, of course, have to die in a hospital or in their bed go unchallenged and leave me wondering: Where does the grandson want or expect people to die, in the United States, in this current time?
The second aspect of Us that caught me by surprise is the very existence of the grandson. We are more than a third of the way through the novel when he shows up. This may have initially seemed a good idea, but it opens the book to structural issues. The first pages situate readers inside Oliver’s mind in a convincing manner. As the novella goes on we’re shown his thoughts and feelings, but no children or grandchildren are called, or call, and no nephews, nieces, sisters, or brothers visit. Not until Kimball inserts the grandchild into the book do we know Oliver has any family.
A straightforward narrative from the grandfather’s point of view provides a bleak picture, as we imagine him on his own, and it might make his tale match the Paris Review’s description of it as “heartbreakingly lovely.” But there is a family. Why don’t they appear in Oliver’s thoughts? If the purpose of their absence is to underscore how lonely Oliver feels, then what explains the medical personnel and the presence of other patients? The exclusion of every family member from Oliver’s consciousness requires an explanation that Kimball fails to provide.
But let’s consider the possibilities that Oliver is unable to think of family due to his misery, or that at some point in the past there’s been a severe rupture. In either scenario, beyond the medical community no one is there to help. But we know from the grandchild’s words that the family “stayed in the viewing room of the funeral home for all the viewing hours on all those viewing days.” From feeling sympathy for an elderly man without a family, I moved to disliking a selfish old guy who didn’t think much of being a father or maintaining strong ties with others. Oliver’s complete seclusion is a serious subject worth addressing—indicative of a monstrous ego or a harmful codependence—but it goes by without a word. (Exactly why Oliver can’t take his wife back to the hospital is similarly protected from comment or examination.)
Such self-centeredness touches on the above-mentioned problem Kimball has in making two rounded characters. Only Oliver has substance, yet what we learn from his grandson removes the sympathy felt for the grandfather. We hear a lot about Oliver’s love for his wife, and we get very little else. Apparently he can only keep living if his wife stays alive. It’s a common enough occurrence that the remaining spouse dies soon after the other spouse dies, especially if a broken heart is involved, but that isn’t a given in all circumstances. One would expect some hint of what the grandfather thought of his family, or of his attempt to talk about his loss.
Reviewers of Us find its appeal in its style, as best summed up by Time Out Chicago: “The sentences and even paragraphs simulate the stunned but dutiful response to the suffering of a loved one: short, raw and somewhat elliptical, wrapping themselves around the small tasks at hand and the larger questions constantly raised.” How the combination of illness, grief, and death is presented by a writer is one thing; the emotional trauma associated with those subjects is another, and they go unexplored in Us. The reviewers cited on Kimball’s webpage have ideas about what death looks like, and for them this book’s style is what captures their hearts—as they read of the death of a fictional character. We’re not so far removed from the scene of desperate 19th-century readers storming the docks for news of Little Nell, a death that would not have been so affecting—or, perhaps, manipulative—if written in a different style.
Much of what Kimball does is competent and well-crafted. His steady look at the death of a woman and all its consequences comes at a time when so many of us (at times with deep relief) sequester aged parents and other relatives in a home so their deaths can occur antiseptically. But Kimball’s performance is so smooth that it’s bland. Again we come back to the prose style that, as shown above, is almost always unadorned, lacking in resonance and replete with repetitiveness; there’s no flare of poetry, no untidy rhythm, and no excess. No matter the occasion, Oliver will always be inoffensive, never erupting with feelings or using an adjective for no good reason. He is controlled, and the result is gray, uninteresting prose.
In Us the theme of death is nicely wrapped up in a meat-and-potatoes kind of story, with the salt of irony left off the table. If the grandson had been left out of it we would have a bitter and haunting depiction of one man’s empty life, and drawn from that an appreciation of a society that has forgotten its elders and done away with the importance of family and friends, leaving our most vulnerable in the hands of white-coated medicos whose actions at best stall the inevitable trip to the beyond. Us is an earnest book that risks nothing, and bores through its aesthetic drabness. There’s not enough ambition behind it, and that’s something to grieve over.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, was published in October 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty.
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