The best little novel you haven't heard about – Oprah's Reading List
This is the second book by Michael Kimball that I’ve read. The first was the slightly odd The Way the Family Got Away, slightly odd in that its two narrators are a seven- and a three-year-old trying to comprehend their family's journey through a series of towns after the death of one of their siblings. It’s quirky, perhaps even gimmicky; it’s definitely risky and not all readers were willing to get on board with him. Us—a revised version of How Much of Us There Was as it first appeared in the UK—is a little more of the same. Only this time Kimball’s gone to the other end of the spectrum: our narrator is an old man. Exactly how old is never made clear; he can still drive but he’s also frail and sometimes gets confused. At first I actually thought the narrator had learning difficulties—and perhaps he does but that’s never made clear—because of the clipped and precise way he tells his story:
I picked the telephone up to call for somebody to come to help me get my wife up. I covered my wife up with the bedcovers to keep her warm. I pulled the bedcovers up to her neck. I brushed her hair back away from her face with my hand and touched her cheek. I held my fingers under her nose and over her mouth. I couldn’t feel any breath coming out of her anymore. I held onto her nose and tried to breathe some of my breath into her mouth. There didn’t seem to be enough air inside of me to get her to breathe.
I was afraid to leave my wife in our bed, but I was also afraid that the ambulance might not find our house. I walked out of our bedroom, down the hallway, and up into the front of our house. I turned all of the lights in all of the front rooms of our house on. I opened the front door up, stood in the doorway, and turned the light on the front porch on too. I wanted them to know that it was our house and us that needed them.
This has put off some readers. For example Goodreads reviewer Mary writes: “The narrator felt too reduced to a six-year-old child in the style Kimball chose, which I realize helps to create vulnerability, but also subtly diminished my ability to take the narrator seriously.” I agree the style of writing is very deliberate and it does feel a little contrived, at times, as if he’s twisting the man’s natural phraseology to make a point. As is usually the case with things that come across as simplistic, a lot of hard work went into getting the tone of this book right. In an interview Kimball writes:
It was draining to write and I managed that by writing the novel pretty slowly, just a little over 100 words a day or so. And I spent a lot of time with each sentence, putting down one sentence after another in a deliberate fashion, embedding a kind of feeling in each one. Sometimes, it felt as if I were laying bricks or stacking wood, letting all the feeling accumulate little by little with each sentence until I was working with something overwhelming.
I think the reviewer in Time Out Chicago got where Kimball was coming from when he wrote, “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.” He incidentally gave the book 5 stars.
But back to the story.
The man’s wife has had a seizure and is rushed off to hospital. At first it looks like she’s not going to make it. She ends up in the Intensive Care Unit and for days the old guy hangs around wishing she’d come back to him:
The doctor told me that if she did anything again that she would be able to hear again first. He told me to talk to her. He told me to ask her for small things.
I asked her to open her eyes back up. I asked her to move her eyes back and forth under her eyelids so that her eyelids would tremble some. I asked her to smile or move her lips even a little bit. I watched her eyes and her lips for a twitch or for any other kind of change in the way that her face looked. I held onto her hand and asked her to move her fingers, but she didn’t move them or seem to touch my hand back. I asked her if the bruises on her arms from the needles and the tubes hurt.
Amazingly she pulls through but it’s obvious her seizure’s taken its toll on her. She gets to go home but both her husband and she know that their time together is limited:
She couldn’t get up to walk anywhere even with her walker and she couldn’t move or talk much anymore either. She didn’t want to live as little as she was then, only sitting up or lying down.
So we began to practice for how and when she might finish living and dying. We practiced more seizures, but the shaking made both of us afraid. We practiced strokes, but she was afraid that might leave her only half as much alive as she was then. We practiced heart attacks, but she didn’t want her heart to stop first. We practiced overdoses with aspirins and vitamins. We considered slitting her wrists, but we thought that would have hurt too much. We tried to do a suffocation with a pillow, but I couldn’t hold the pillow down.
We mostly practiced home death. Neither one of us wanted to go back to the hospital. But we practiced hospital death in case the ambulance came back to our house and took her back there. I got appliances from around our house and plugged them in around my wife—the microwave and the coffee maker, the alarm clock and any other appliances that had lights or numbers that lit up or that made beeps—and then I practiced unplugging them.
I’m not sure I’ve read anything as poignant and painful as this since Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows which tells the story of an old couple clinging to each other after a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union. It’s a graphic novel but not one for children which must’ve confused some parents when it came out because Briggs is well known for his children’s books.
On the surface both books are simple enough stories told in as straightforward a manner as possible and yet that’s where their power exists. Society complicates things. Death has become a costly business. As has dying. And living’s harder work than it really ought to be too. We’re told that so many things matter—the logo on our trainers, the size of our TVs, the cars we drive—when really, when push comes to shove, living itself can be quite enough. Towards the end of her life my mother subsisted on microwave chips, the woman whose war cry was, “You are what you eat.” And it’s the same with this old couple. Arriving home to find there’s little left to eat—everything’s gone off—they settle down with a bowl of dry cereal:
We knew that it didn’t matter what or how much we ate. We knew that we wouldn’t be alive and be together for much longer.
Us is a work of fiction but Kimball breaks off his storytelling every now and then and starts to talk about what clearly was the inspiration behind this story, those he himself has lost. Like his Grandfather Oliver and how he coped—and failed to cope—after the death of his wife:
My grandfather was hurt, but none of us could get inside of him—not the doctor, not the pictures, not his sister or daughter or any of his grandchildren—to make it stop.
At least I’ve assumed these sections are memoirs and the narrator is not the grandson of the old man and woman. If he is then where there hell were his parents when their parents were going through all of this?
Death is a process. There are tick boxes: No circulation—check! No respiration—check! No brain activity—check! But there are more than a few people walking around with a pulse who’re already dead inside. Because their reason for living is no longer there. And it becomes abundantly clear from the very start of this book that that’s what this couple are to each other. So it’s a book about death and dying but more importantly it’s a book about love. In an interview Kimball says:
The novel was written out of feelings of loss and grief, but mostly out of love–for my grandparents, who I spent a lot of time with when I was growing up. Instead of method acting, it was a kind of method writing. I wanted the reader to feel what I felt. It was also a way to go back and remember my grandparents, their house, their garden, their car, the way that they talked and moved—and that was a kind of small comfort.
Caring for someone who’s dying can be hard work especially if you’re not in the best of health yourself. Mostly love has to be expressed in practical ways; that’s all there’s time for. You do what’s enough. And at the end for most couples—at least couples like the one described here—it’s enough simply to be together; that’s all they can really do for each other. To continue to be ‘us’ for the longest time possible:
We wanted it to be daytime all the time. We didn’t need much sleep anymore anyway. She had saved so much of it up while she was sleeping in the hospital and I wanted to be awake for the rest of the time that she was going to be alive.
We unplugged all the clocks and anything that had a clock on it. We used our extra time awake to slow the rest of our time down. We cooked and ate and sat and talked and waited and moved and walked and we did it all slowed down. There wasn’t anything else that we wanted to do but be awake and alive with each other.
It goes without saying that this is a sad book—it’s a terribly sad book—but it’s a book that will go right over the heads of some people. I’m fifty-five and my wife is sixty-seven and I can picture me in this situation in the future. I’m not sure the seventeen-year-old me would’ve been able to project himself that far into the future. There are times it veers towards the maudlin and I could feel the shadow of Mitch Albom lurking in the background but I don’t think Kimball ever gets overly sentimental; this is a practical couple and their love is expressed in practical ways. No one weeps or sobs. The old guy cries once. But there are no histrionics. Just one terribly futile gesture involving a suitcase which I won’t spoil for you that I have to say did get to me.
Michael Kimball was born in 1967 in Lansing, Michigan. He’s the author of four critically-acclaimed novels, including Dear Everybody, The Way the Family Got Away and Big Ray. Each of his novels has been translated into many languages. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), the documentary films 60 Writers/60 Places and I Will Smash You in which dozens of people each tell a story about an object that has some personal meaning for them and then destroy that object in whatever manner they wish. He has also published the book Words under the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine. Oh, and something called Galaga, a video game book. No idea what that is.
He blogs here.