MARCH 21, 2012
I’VE SEEN PETER ORNER READ from his new novel, Love and Shame and Love, twice. The first time was in San Francisco, at the Booksmith. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I saw how Orner had signed my book: “To Lauren: Wishing you more shame than love.”
More shame than love? When I heard him read at the Mountain Bar in Los Angeles a month later, I teased him about it.
He was incredulous. “No!” He shook his head. “Did I really do that? I sign everyone’s book with, ‘Wishing you more love than shame.’”
We laughed. He promised to send me a new copy. “Don’t you dare. I’m keeping this one.”
“Well, you know, when you think about it … shame is more interesting than love … don’t you think?”
That sounds like a question the novel’s central character, Alexander Popper (or just Popper, as he’s referred to in the novel), would ask. He is a repository of memory. He wants to understand his family, why he is who he is, and whether any liberatory sense can be made of it. So he goes back to the stories of his parents and grandparents, Jews growing up in the early 20th century. There is his grandfather Seymour Popper, World War II veteran and insurance broker, and his wife, Bernice, a ballerina-turned-housewife; there are Alexander’s parents, Philip and Miriam, a politics-driven lawyer and the woman who married him, seduced by the idea of living in a big city; and there is Alexander’s older brother, Leo, the Poppers’ would-be consigliere, who takes it upon himself to educate his younger brother about the world. With each memory, whether his own or borrowed, Popper seems to be asking, Where does love come from and what does it do for us? Whether he gets any answers is murky, but in the asking, and the recalling, he weaves a beautiful narrative.
Orner’s fiction is lyrical and introspective. The characters are dimensional but remain mysterious, speaking to one another in dialogue filled with humor and well-weighted irony. Four generations of Poppers work to find their way in the ever-changing city of Chicago, while negotiating the spaces between their own desires.
Orner’s off-the-cuff musing that shame is more interesting than love is actually at the emotional heart of his epic family saga; though the moments of shame are not necessarily more interesting than moments of love, they have more staying power in the characters’ lives. Or rather, all the love that permeates the story is alight with shame, as if shame is an enzyme that unlocks and activates an otherwise useless nutrient. In this novel, everyone is ashamed of their loves, ashamed about who doesn’t love them, ashamed of never loving or being loved enough. And these darker feelings of humiliation elevate love to a higher register. Take Popper, for example. On their first date, Popper’s college girlfriend, Kat, praises Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, asking, “If we’re estranged from ourselves how can we not be estranged from other people, much less love them?” Kat and Popper end up estranged themselves, and Popper spends his time remembering, and failing to remember, the exact details of their time together, and mourning the loss.
Nobody in the novel feels loved enough. The neighbor, Mr. McLendon, throws rocks at streetlights, naked in the night, out of sad desperation at being ignored by his wife. Philip and Miriam’s marriage disintegrates into infidelities and arguments. The children seek refuge from their parents’ cold kitchen tempests in books and cartoons, in hiding spots in the garage and in strange, borderline violent children’s games, like the one in which Leo stuffs Popper into a sleeping bag and throws him down the stairs to interrupt his parents’ quarrels. Bernice Popper, like her daughter-in-law, feels trapped in a loveless marriage, and mourns her stunted career as a ballet dancer. Interspersed throughout the chapters are love letters written from Seymour to Bernice during World War II. Though we never hear Bernice’s replies, it’s evident from Seymour’s letters that he’s hungry for an affection and care she won’t grant him. This imbalance continues after he returns home. Bernice is always out the door, always avoiding his touches.
All this love, loss, shame, frustration, anger, resentment, lust, and disappointment transpire against the backdrop of 20th-century Chicago. Orner shows us The Machine of the Windy City through small but potent scenes with Chicago’s movers and shakers: Colonel Jake Arvey, Walter Mondale (in Chicago 1980-1984), Jane Byrne, and fictionalized versions of political heavyweights, like Judge Abraham Lincoln Abramovitz and high-society columnist Sid Kaufman. We learn about the entitlement and corruption of the Second City each time a Popper brushes with fame: While standing at a urinal, Philip Popper asks Arvey for advice about running for office; Miriam Popper carries on a clandestine affair with Walter Mondale while hosting living room meet-and-greets for his campaign; Seymour and Bernice Popper schmooze with the Rat Pack in their Highland Park parlor.
But what Chicago giveth, it taketh away. All of the Poppers lose something in their bargains with fortune: marriages, relationships, children, elections, socialite popularity, even Chicago itself. Shortly after Alexander Popper’s birth, the family moves to the North Shore, to join the exodus of wealthy suburbanite Jews: “The new kid was promptly robbed of his birthright. So long, Chicago, I never even knew ye.” Thereafter, the family pines for the city they left. Miriam, “bored in exile,” relentlessly seeks to make herself whole. She works as a census taker, an Easter Bunny for the Easter Seals, an Oriental Institute docent, Philip’s campaign manager — anything to infuse her stale life with energy. Leo pours himself into books, art, and mentally torturing his younger brother (Leo is Popper’s “boss, his alderman, his Kaiser, his Ayatollah, his Colonel Mustard”). Popper walks two doors down to the Lake. Listens.
Chicago is the Promised Land. It is Mecca (“The Lake is always east. East is always the Lake.”). But it is also Gomorrah. When young Miriam moves away from New England to marry Philip Popper, her father protests, “You don’t live in Chicago, Chicago’s not a place you’ve heard of, read about in Upton Sinclair, that stink, maybe you visit for a convention, but live?” Like Jeffrey Eugenides’s Detroit, Orner’s Chicago is the microcosm of the 20th century European immigrant experience. The “white-but-not-white-enough” immigrants: exiled, persecuted, overworked, caricatured, yet still suffered just enough power by the dominant culture to occasionally rise above the huddled masses and throw their weight around through military rank, or music, or law, or politics, or organized crime. Just enough power to divide an already oppressed race into deeper stratifications, fostering shame among those that never made it to the lush tree-lined streets of Highland Park, or among those who, like the Poppers, feel remorse for abandoning Chicago in favor of the suburbs. For this is also the story of the shame of historical trauma. That’s the larger shame, the grandest hurt, which colors all the smaller, personal ones throughout the book.
Unlike classic epics, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, which follow a family chronologically all the way through to its devastating unraveling, Love and Shame and Love is written in a series of vignettes. The chapters are short breaths, and through them we learn intimate details of Popper family life: Popper and Kat’s first awkward college try at lovemaking; Popper’s sibling rivalry with Leo; a portrait of ancient Grandmother Wasserkreug; Miriam Popper’s stint playing the Log Cabin Lady for the Highland Park Historical Society. We are also introduced to a cast of supporting characters: sad bachelor Uncle Mose who sold raincoats on State Street; the child prodigies of the Rosencrantzes, a precocious and pretentious family portrait reminiscent of the Chalfens from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; and the two prominent African-American characters Hollis Osgood, Popper’s houseman, and Manny Laveneaux, Popper’s best friend. The vignette-length chapters give us multiple lenses through which to view the flawed, searching Poppers.
Orner’s novel spans a good part of the 20th century, but he never tries to compress time or catalog it exhaustively. We skip through time, backwards, forwards, from narrator to narrator, the way we might remember our own pasts. This allows us to feel the effects of time in a subtler way than if the novel started at the “very beginning” and worked its painstaking way through 70-odd years of passions and failures. It feels almost as if every story is happening at once. The remembering is the experiencing is the remembering.
And the quiet Alexander Popper watches. He longs for what he cannot have and berates himself for this. We see him spying, through the bathroom window, on a schoolgirl next door lying in the grass, as she lifts her leg over her head. During a game of tag, he hides in a ravine in the overgrown garden at Manny’s house, watching Manny’s lithe twin sisters, Claudette and Sabine, with excitement and curiosity. He remembers his washed-up music teacher, Mrs. Gerstadt, and wants to “crush her sadness with his confusion and his sick sick wants, in the sun room with the dead plants.” He even watches Kat, as she writes, as she strides across campus, still failing to describe her to his satisfaction: “Because people just vanish. Around a corner, into a crowd, down the street, across town. Isn’t this a kind of death?” As family bonds melt and then cool, Popper observes — no, absorbs — all the tiny moments that create a story.
Towards the end of the novel, Popper remarks that there should be more than one word for remembering. Subtly, the novel explores the principle that you cannot observe something without changing it. “Don’t you know that when you restore you also ruin?” Popper asks. He’s addressing the Junior League of the North Shore, which has remodeled the condemned estate where Manny Laveneaux used to live, but the question carries a deeper implication. Memories shift and elude us: “you can’t catch what isn’t catchable, and … even the memory of a girl in a ripped sundress will always be just out of grasp.”
But we could turn this insight on its head — when you ruin, you also restore. The Popper family is shipwrecked by love, but is buoyed by it as well. The metaphor of water reappears at emotionally significant points throughout the novel: when Philip throws 4-year-old Alexander Popper into the freezing waters of Lake Michigan and instructs him, “Sink or swim, kid.” Or when Bernice and Seymour take their grandchildren fishing on Fox Lake and Popper watches his newly caught perch slowly die at the bottom of the boat. Or when thousands of dead alewives wash up on Cary Avenue Beach, glittering and putrefying in the winter sun. Even “Riparian Lane,” the street on which the Poppers live, carries symbolic resonance; when Popper reads Faulkner to Kat, he waxes poetic about “going down with the ship of love and never coming back to the surface.” Love will drown us, but in so doing will make us one with its element, and with the drowned others. Peter Orner has written a magnificent book — magnificent in its unassuming details that nevertheless burst with meaning.