By Nathan C. Martin
Michael Kimball’s stylistic capacities dwarf those of most contemporary fiction writers, and he employs them with vigor to confront themes that authors have explored through the annals of literature—most explicitly: death. His first novel, The Way the Family Got Away, is a surreal and cerebral travelogue that follows a family fleeing their home following the death of an infant (which they take along in the trunk) told from the perspective of the family’s two young children. His second novel, Dear Everybody, is comprised mostly of a collection of suicide notes written by a young man to everyone from his friends and family to the Tooth Fairy, the Easter bunny, and the state of Michigan. It is heartbreaking and hilarious—the Believer called it a “curatorial masterpiece.” His newest novel, Us, recently released in the United States by Tyrant Books (read an excerpt), describes in slow, simple language the way in which an old man experiences his wife’s death. If this all sounds macabre, it is, but the utter humanity Kimball evokes with each work keeps the reader on a particular verge of tears—one which heart-swollen laughter at the beauty of life also occupies.
Along with the transfixing description of an elderly husband waking to his wife having a seizure that puts her in a coma, following her to and living in a hospital while she comes to, comforting her and accompanying her at home in the weeks that follow before she dies, and dancing with a lamp dressed in her clothes after the funeral, Us also includes sections told from the perspective of a grandson trying to make sense of the distinct variety of love he witnessed between his grandparents—one in which sensational passion was absent, but in its everydayness seemed glacial in both its power and pace.
Kimball lives in Baltimore with his wife, an English professor and associate dean at the University of Maryland. He will be in New Orleans at the Antenna Gallery on Thursday, June 9, at 7 p.m., to read as part of the book tour for Us.
He will be accompanied by Blake Butler, author of books such as Scorch Atlas, a slim yet mind-blowing post-apocalyptic extravaganza, and most recently There Is No Year, which the New York Times described as “a thing of such strange beauty that digging for answers of your own will yield the rewards that only well-made art can provide.” Butler also edits HTML Giant, “the internet literature magazine blog of the future.”
Room 220: I was wondering if you could describe the process by which you decided you had the ability to write a compelling narrative from the point of view of an old man whose wife is dying. How did you go about finding that voice?
Michael Kimball: It started out as a bit of an accident. I had approached the novel a few different ways a few different times, none of which worked, and the first couple of sentences I ended up with took a few years. But I was sitting at my desk one night writing longhand and I just started writing this voice—the one that opens the first chapter—and I just knew I had the voice at that point. There was a really specific syntax, a really specific way of talking and describing things, and it really seemed to capture the feeling I was trying to convey. I already had the idea for the story, but all the details, all of what the novel becomes, came out of that voice once I knew I had it.
Rm220: In terms of syntax, it seems pretty clear that you imposed rules on the language at the sentence level. All the sentences begin with the subject, there are no adverbs, and it’s all very pared down, plain language. Did you have a set of explicit rules you were following while you were writing the book?
MK: I did have a general set of rules—one of them was always beginning with the subject. I’m not sure there are any sentences in the book that start with a clause that isn’t the main clause. The whole idea there is to create forward movement in the narrative—you’re not preponing or postponing any of the story, you just keep going forward. I also like to break that basic rule we’re taught in grammar school, that you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. I tend to think that you should, and that it creates a nice effect. And I really was trying to strip the language down in a way to approximate the rawness of what the narrator is trying to tell us, what he is experiencing.
Rm220: Along with the simple language, the death you describe is a very ordinary death—there’s nothing sensational at the plot level to take away from keeping the reader focused and very much in the narrator’s head. Was the ordinariness of the death something you strived for?
MK: It was in the sense that I didn’t want anything distracting. By not trying to do anything strange or weird in those terms, I felt as if it kept the reader from questioning in any way what the real issues were—grief and love and how two people deal with that.
Rm220: It also creates a striking contrast in the few instances when there are abnormal or surreal things that happen, like when the husband surrounds the wife with kitchen appliances in their living room to simulate a hospital death.
MK: Sure, and it’s not to say there isn’t anything strange in the book. But I was, in a sense, saving those points for where grief does drive us to that extreme behavior—that being one of those instances.
Rm220:The husband’s rationality comes into question a lot in response to his wife’s condition, like when he’s talking about how the different things he’s doing or seeing indicate to him whether his wife has a better chance of being alive—the ambulance engine being warm means his wife has a better chance of living, or throwing out rotting food might somehow decrease her chances of survival. Do you think people are incapable of being rational when they’re staring down death in this way?
MK:I think plenty of people are rational. I grew up in a very rational family—stiff upper lip and all that. But I think that one of the ways grief is most interesting and one of the ways that we can come to understand it is through those extremes of behavior. For instance, dementia or hallucination can be a side effect of extreme grief, and I was playing with that idea. But the parts you were talking about are more like, here’s a man who’s sort of helpless to take care of this person who he cares about more than any other person, and just grasping at anything he can to try to make sense and comfort himself.
Rm220: In Part II of the book the grandson narrator articulates a distinction in caregiving that’s central to what you’re talking about—when we’re trying to take care of someone who’s sick or dying, how much of what we’re doing is actually helping them, and how much is ineffectual but makes us feel better? Is that an important distinction, or does it not matter because the caregiver has to do whatever he or she can to alleviate the total amount of suffering?
MK:I think the latter is absolutely true. I grew up in a family around a lot of people who were dying, and you really just do anything you can. But I guess it’s really about both things at the same time—doing or saying anything you can, both for yourself and for the other person.
Rm220: The grandson narrator talks about the idea of the “accumulation of love” when he’s talking about reading his grandmother’s diaries. They don’t explain how the love between her and her husband developed, but that’s evidenced in the accumulated descriptions of everyday activities. I feel like the structure of Us functions in much the same way, in that it’s not so much a narrative arc, but a narrative accumulation—the grandmother goes from living to dead and that’s the story’s arc, but page-by-page the transfixion that the reader experiences is not a result of the plot, but of this accumulation of simple descriptions or simple actions, which are amplified in the context of what’s happening—they become really intense. I was wondering if you had this idea of accumulation in mind while you were writing.
MK: That’s actually an idea, probably since I started writing fiction, that I can’t stop working with. I’ve never wanted to work with plot in the way that plot often gets described for novels or movies or anything like that—that sort of “what happens” is never what interested me. So it really is a narrative of accumulation—of these small acts, but also an accumulation of feeling. So the effect that I’m working with is not “what happens”—because in a sense we all know what’s going to happen in this book. What I’m working with is emotion and feeling and how to deal with how it accumulates. And everything I’m trying to do throughout the book, to keep ramping that element up, is in service of that.
Rm220: One of the most impressive things to me about the book is how successfully it maintains this static, narrow field of vision. Everything that happens is essentially right in front of the husband’s face—there are no panoramic descriptions of the city, or even him looking around. And the things happening are not particularly exciting things, in the conventional sense. You talk in an interview with Blake Butler about how much attention you pay to the acoustics of your writing. I was wondering if there was some sort of relationship between the acoustics of your writing and how you were able to maintain this static, narrow scope.
MK: In a really basic way, those are two things that I’m thinking about on the compositional level as I’m working through any particular piece of fiction, not just Us. I use acoustics to get from sentence to sentence—I’m often finding a word or phrase by looking at the surrounding acoustics rather than by a kind of semantic logic. And by keeping the focus limited, I can make some surprising choices by not allowing that standard kind of description that might set up a scene. The field of vision becomes key to the narrative in a different way—that is, narrowing the field of vision, the things that are part of the novel (or any particular piece of work) versus the things that are not, that helps the energy and the tension build—by not looking away, by always taking the narrative and the reader deeper. Those two things, working with acoustics and with a narrow field, work in concert to advance the narrative in what I think of as a nonstandard, interesting, way.
Rm220: I heard someone say once that love is only really good after 30 years, that what follows is the filet of the relationship—and it’s obviously a different type of love than younger love. In this book, the love between the couple seems to transcend being simply an emotional connection between two people—it’s more like an element in the very medium in which they exist, and once it’s compromised the entire experience of reality is affected—that’s where the irrationality comes from, that’s where the amplification of ordinary actions comes from, the sort of drugged, swimming feeling that pervades the book. And I was thinking of that in terms of how it compares to the heartbreak of young love. What do you think the distinction is?
MK: I think your description is an accurate representation, and I think the two kinds of love are almost certainly very different things. I was coming at it from a point of not understanding what that long love is, but trying to piece it together from the things I saw in a particular set of my grandparents. The only way to make sense of some of their actions and behaviors and the way they were around each other was this accumulated love, this love that takes this different form—this kind of deepness, a different kind of everydayness which I had only a vague sense when I was writing the book. But since writing the book, I’ve come to understand more of love, just in my own life—the deepness, how the accumulation continues. I get to 30 years with my wife in 12 more years. Eighteen years is pretty great, so whatever 30 years is, I hope that is even better.
Rm220: Was the process of writing this book instructive to your own understanding of how love functions and how it accumulates?
MK: It really was, and it wasn’t something I set out to do—that’s part of where those grandson chapters come from. It’s me saying, “Why am I writing this? What does this mean?” and taking an interior look at what I was doing with the fiction. I saw a LitChat with the novelist Caroline Leavitt, and she was saying that she writes about things to understand them. She had started to write about children as a way to understand her two boys—writing about a 13 year old was a way of understanding her own 13 year old while not writing about him specifically. It’s really fascinating how that happens. It’s sort of an unexpected benefit of taking on a subject like that.
Rm220: One of the reasons why I was interested in this book was that I’m working on an essay about marriage, and in retrospect I realize that one of the reasons I started it was because I was in a relationship and I wanted to convince my girlfriend at the time that it would be a good idea to marry me—which, she decided it wasn’t, but it wasn’t any fault of the essay’s. She actually really liked the essay. I was curious if you’d gotten any feedback about this book from your wife.
MK: She loves the book, and she is very much is my first reader. Her sense of what I’m trying to do has always been very helpful to me as a writer, and she just had a deep, immediate, fundamental understanding of Us, and that was how I was sure I’d done what I set out to do.
Rm220: Yeah, if your wife hadn’t like it …
MK: … there would have been a problem—either with the book or the wife.
Rm220: Probably the book.