Love comes in for a thrashing in Joan Silber’s sixth book, The Size of the World, a collection of loosely connected stories. Women struggle under the curse of commitment: pining for an unrequited love, taking up with bad boys, compromising reluctantly, being paid for companionship. Most of the men are restless, emotionally dwarfed souls, skittish about settling down and forced by economic circumstance or post-traumatic lethargy to whittle down their notions of independence. When Silber does create a good guy, he gets jilted or dies.
These first-person narratives cover whole adult lives in fifty to eighty pages, as the protagonists find themselves abroad by choice, fate, or political accident—but remain essentially visitors, no matter how long they stay. “Zain had been right all along,” says Corinna, in “Paradise,” of leaving Thailand. “My money (such as it was) would take me home when I wanted.” They are quiet, thoughtful, plainspoken: “If you don’t go anywhere, you think your own way is the whole thing,” says one characterand it’s a statement that reappears in variations throughout the book, along with musings about the yearning for solitude and the perils of greed. “I floated on my own pond of separate sound, fogged in with secret noise,” says Toby in “Envy.” “I did my best to be alone without leaving. In the cool of the evenings, I tried to make my own Walden.”
But then, the world has thrust its mighty political fist into the lives of Silber’s people and left them shell-shocked: World War II, Vietnam, natural disaster, 9/11—such things complicate their search for peace and their struggles to make the transition from youth to maturity. Their worlds become large, vibrant, and risky while they are abroad, then shrink when they return home to the reliable ups and downs of employment and relationships.
“Paradise” and “The Other Side of the World” follow the lives of Owen and Corinna, brother and sister orphaned by a hurricane in Florida. These paired stories resonate with desperation and linger in the mind. Owen, a geologist-cum–tin prospector, lives in the jungle of Thailand (called Siam in the ’20s, when the story begins), a master of his small universe, with a loyal sidekick, Zain, for whom his sister will nourish a lifelong but unreciprocated ardor. Owen returns to the US once the tin market bottoms out, and Corinna follows with her English husband. The siblings suffer a reverse homesickness—longing for Thailand. Corinna sees “the rest of [her] life . . . like smoke,” while Owen, working for a company that makes screws, becomes “a sputtering rogue, a spoiled boy, a leftover colonial in a freed state.”
Silber signposts the characters’ preoccupations through titles: In “Envy,” Toby, an engineer charged with uncovering a glitch in the navigation systems of airplanes flying over Vietnam (which turns out to be faulty screws made by Owen’s company), envies the glory and solitude attained by his colleague, an antisocial genius. “I wanted praise and my own corner, both at once,” Toby says. After the war, he marries Toon, a Thai nurse, and they raise a son in Bangkok, where a humdrum life (he goes to work at a bottling factory and a sanitation company) leads to another pivotal moment of envy: As inner peace eludes him and his wife, their son decides to become a Buddhist monk.
Silber suggests that independence and risk make the “the size of the world” larger, while staying within the confines of family and marriage narrows its boundaries. This is most obvious in “Allegiance” and “Loyalty,” which link two generations of one family. The former tells the life of Viana, the daughter of Sicilian immigrants who settle in New Jersey, while the latter opens in Sicily during World War II, when Viana’s parents met. In “Allegiance,” Viana, the beloved youngest daughter, falls in love with a Thai doctor (the grandson of Zain). When she returns with him to Bangkok (where her dear friends Toon and Toby live) to raise a family, her parents refuse contact with her—she’s married a Muslim—even after their granddaughter is born. Loyalty, a Sicilian staple, comes undone. Viana’s parents’ small world stays small, even after war and immigration. After her husband’s sudden death, Viana returns to the fold, chastened, numb, and agreeable to settling down with Mike in Indiana. “Oh, well,” she says, “I shouldn’t complain, should I? At least I was happy once.”
The stories in Silber’s previous collection, Ideas of Heaven (2004), a finalist for the National Book Award, also took her characters abroad—to Italy and China—to explore sexual and religious longing. In interviews, she cites Chekhov and Alice Munro as models, and as in so many contemporary stories, their influence can be felt in the swift passage of time, the domestic details, the seething resignation. But these stories also bring to mind this year’s Unaccustomed Earth, in which Jhumpa Lahiri wrestles the giant themes of love, family, and immigration—the size of one’s world—to the ground. The two writers create family portraits from particular points of view as they explore the meaning of home from different sides of the ocean. Lahiri builds her stories to an emotional bang; Silber’s lean toward a whimper. Both writers draw on the variations in being human, leaving the reader to behold his or her own follies and flaws.
Silber has opened up her fictional world since her first book, Household Words (1980), about a suburban New Jersey mother unmoored by unexpected tragedies. But the nitty-gritty of domestic life still dominates. While her characters struggle with their demons, she draws their lives out with ease and tenderness, generously leaving the reader with what evaded them: their own private Walden, for a few moments at least.
Lenora Todaro is a New York–based critic and writer and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.