It was so dispiriting for me to discover — this late in the game — a terrific writer who has been at it for decades. Where has Joan Silber been, this winner of the 2017 Book Critics Circle Award?
Washington Post book critic Charles Finch calls Silber our equivalent to Canada’s Alice Munro. He writes that like Munro, Silber, “talks a story past its easiest meaning.” She measures favorably against short-story writers like Joy Williams, Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley.
And I guess it would be easy to simply see Improvement as a series of short stories. In it, we encounter a handful of characters trying to bring their actions into alignment with their intentions.
But here Silber goes beyond building a book of short stories. She skillfully links her characters’ lives as intricately as are woven the threads in the Turkish rug that Reyna’s aunt Kiki gives her in the opening chapter, providing for its reappearance at the story’s end. Indeed, it is the lives of Reyna and Kiki that establish the fabric of this artful meditation.
Improvement really is Reyna’s story. She begins by telling you about her aunt Kiki, who went to Istanbul in her twenties, fell in love with a carpet merchant, followed him back onto his family’s farm when business took a turn for the worse, and eventually returned to New York City and got a job booking housekeepers and nannies through a small agency.
Kiki is a bit of an intellectual, a citizen of the world, given to quoting Averroes and recommending that Reyna read Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. As if Reyna, single mother of Oliver, receptionist at a veterinary clinic who barely made it out of high school, would likely read anything longer than the directions that come with a bottle of prescription drugs.
Reyna’s preoccupation is Boyd, a three-month resident of Riker’s, who had gotten caught selling five ounces of marijuana. We learn a lot about what Reyna thinks about life: “I loved Boyd but I wouldn’t have said I loved him more than the others I’d been with,” she says. “Fortunately no one asked. Not even Boyd.”
Interestingly, the role played by love in human decision-making is revisited in subsequent stories. And Reyna returns to the theme near the book’s close. “Too much was asked of love,” she tells the reader.
Unfortunately for Reyna and Boyd’s relationship — and it’s especially unfortunate for little Oliver, for whom Boyd has turned into a real buddy — things take a turn for the worse when a cigarette smuggling enterprise goes horribly awry. Boyd lays some of the blame at Reyna’s door, since her cooperation might have made the difference in the plot’s success. Reyna is white and Boyd and his cohort are black. (This is the only place in the story where race is referenced aside from the fact that Reyna lives in Harlem.)
Part I of the novel is devoted to Reyna, Boyd and Kiki. Part II takes us to other stories and other characters whose lives are linked to the plot to smuggle cigarettes across state lines and Kiki’s life in Turkey, where she comes into contact with smugglers of antiquities. With the stories we move back and forth geographically and historically. The characters are varied: a black home health care worker in love with one of the smugglers, a truck driver involved in an accident with them, three Germans, overnight guests of Kiki’s.
Curiously, the issue of provenance — of the carpet, of a cunieform tablet — and the question of stolen goods becomes somehow central to the linked stories. Does anything really belong to any of us? Part III of Improvement returns us to Reyna and her story. And also, maybe, with the possibility of bringing action into alignment with intention.
Improvement reminded me of How It All Began, by Penelope Lively, which plays with the idea of how the ripple effect of a dramatic event — a mugging — can change people’s lives. Charming though it is, Lively’s book is over once you reach the last page. Silber’s stays with you. I was ready to open Improvement back up to Page One and start it again.