REVIEWED BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
At times the best way to communicate the struggle of humanity is simply to write it down; even in today’s instant messaging, friended Twitter-verse, the old-fashioned letter still serves a much-needed purpose.
The prolific Ben Greenman, a New Yorker editor and Palmetto High school graduate, investigates the interplay of the why, what and how of such communication in his epistolary collection. The 14 stories in this slim but substantial volume — the length has more than doubled since its first incarnation as the six-story, limited edition letterpress box Correspondences — are set in a range of locales (from Paris to Harlem to the moon) and eras (from 1851 to present).
A few stories unfold during the Internet age, when Greenman’s characters must sidestep modern communication’s brevity and instantaneousness. They usually do so artfully, save for the narrator in the perplexing yet intriguing Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That, set on a U.S. moon settlement in 1989. He shuns technology and stubbornly clings to letters, what everyone else views as “an antiquated practice.”
Letters are integral parts of the plots and messages. Some impart news, such as the erotic missive to an ex-wife in Country Life is the Only Life Worth Living, pulsing with the narrator’s boundless appetites, while others are considered “particularly efficient delivery mechanism[s] for additional misery.” Some letters are conduits for the blossoming or wilting of love, like the words written by the man in the title vignette who separates from his wife via postcard or in the effortlessly unfurling To Kill the Pink, where deeper connection between two lovers rests on a short note. And some are never meant to be perused, like the more than 2,000 over-the-top romantic love letters Tomas Tinta writes in Hope to a woman he met once.
Throughout, a limber Greenman, author of the rock and roll novel Please Step Back, plays confidently in his customary milieu of human and romantic relationships, inhabiting rapacious male and devious female narrators (as well as quite a few observant painters and lawyers) with practiced ease. Yet his stories are at once weighty and genuine and light and breezy, as he subtly nudges hefty themes of permanence and transience, meaning, isolation and connection. Intensifying mystery and rescuing the collection from a formulaic devotion to letter writing are the intimate yet diaphanous connections the stories share, perhaps a word repeating in two parallel stories or the uncertain sense that characters repeat.
What rises to the surface is that What He’s Poised to Do isn’t just about communication, but what drives it — man’s eternal dilemma, articulated slyly in Against Samantha: “[I]t is every story, told all the time, in every language, with every available flourish. Man is asphyxiated by choice, not in the abstract but in the concrete. It hardens around him.”
Sometimes choices can’t be communicated and shouldn’t be received quickly. Because, like Greenman’s earnest, troubled and deeply human characters, sometimes we need more time to ponder what to do next.
Read more at the Miami Herald
Photo by Dorothy Hong