I've been rereading the novels I've loved in these last few weeks as I've moved from a rural location in western New York State back to Brooklyn, and in this post I want to discuss Joan Silber's Improvement. Like Tony Doerr, she has recently published a new novel, but before I read A Secret Happiness, I wanted to re-experience her deeply satisfying and quietly brilliant novel, Improvement, published in 2017. Some have called it a novel in stories, but to me it feels like a novel because it has a strong through line that links the characters despite disparate contexts that never fail to reveal a connection to the central character, Reyna, a woman we meet in the first two chapters of the book and then don't see again until 140 pages later. Yet despite that, she does indeed feel like a central character! The extraordinary thing is that the novel's opening pages, Reyna's chapters, stick with us even as we're drawn into the stories of the other peripherally connected characters. Contemplating the absence of the central character through most of the novel's pages, two questions occur to me. Why are we so committed to her and why are we so willing to wait for her to return?
Most obvious is that we empathize with Reyna and are deeply sympathetic to her situation. We have watched her become entangled in an all-consuming problem that lacks an obvious solution. It is the unfortunate outcome of a decision she made quickly, involving her boyfriend; she agrees to participate in an illegal money-making scheme and when, at the last minute, she pulls out of it, she alone carries responsibility for the tragic outcome that her defection caused.
It's a burden Reyna hefts willingly, but her resources are as limited as everyone else's, and because she is the only one in the group of schemers who is a single mother, those resources, both emotional and financial, are stretched thin. Reyna's chapters, the two in the beginning and the one at the end are the only chapters narrated in the first-person voice. It is a chummy, friendly voice we warm to immediately. The ad-hoc family she creates with her son and her boyfriend Boyd, incarcerated at Rikers Island when the novel opens, and her Aunt Kiki, a well-travelled older woman who has returned to New York after years of living in Turkey, older and wiser but still, like Reyna, living a humble, resourceful life, engages us. Boyd (an African American) and Kiki (an older white woman) have different perspectives from Reyna who is a young, under-employed, white single mother, and as a result, their encounters are full of friction. She wants things from them she is unable to ask for directly and that subtle frustration saturates the point of view: "Why in God's name would I ever think of splitting up with Boyd before I could at least get him back home and in bed again? What was the point of all these bus rides [to Riker's Island] if I was going to skip that part" (23)?
Yet, after those two first person chapters, the narrative changes to third person and we meet characters whose lives are affected by the same tragedy that has shocked and stunned Reyna, or whose lives are connected to Reyna's solution. What a magnificent balancing act! Silber is a juggler throwing many bowling pins in the air, each one spinning in a different arc, expanding space and time and creating a community that is visible only to the reader who feels a kind of enchantment as she watches the circle grow. And still the question persists: when will Reyna return?
The cast of other characters is large and diverse, yet there is one thing they have in common: their problems can be solved. We watch people come up with logical, thoughtful solutions to the situations that complicate their lives. Even the more troubled ones understand how to get past their obstacles. It is only Reyna who is stuck with the energy-sapping horror.
It is something Reyna can't discuss with anyone, especially her aunt and her boyfriend. It is something she
must solve on her own, and so when we return to her voice, it's evident that while we've been away from her, she has been thinking about how to ease her burden, and just seven pages into the 27 pages of the last chapter, she arrives at a fix that won't change anything, but will, at least, give her peace. It is both an anonymous gift to a person who has been harmed and a means of erasing the guilt that overwhelms her.
But nothing is simple. There are doubts and set-backs, yet by the end of this remarkable saga, Reyna has not only paid for the consequences of her choice, but the moral balance between her principles and the people she lives among has been restored. The last chapter returns us to Reyna's casual, practical first-person voice and the irony of her victory, "Look what love had done even if it hadn't done it," expresses the slippery quality of her secret maneuvers.
I ascribe to the notion that from the beginning, a novel sets a contract with the reader, meaning that if it begins in the first-person, it should maintain that point of view throughout. It's not a binding contract, of course, nothing is in this business, but if the reader is going to go with an abrupt change like a change in the point of view, it shouldn't feel arbitrary. As I contemplate a shift in the point of view of a novel I'm working on, I wanted to understand why Silber made the change and how she crafted it so that it feels utterly natural.
But maybe, before I get to that, it would be helpful to address the issue of narrative distance. People are always claiming that the first person is more intimate than the third. Is it? I don't think so. A close third person point of view can achieve the same intimacy. For an example, look no farther than Chapter 3 which is in the third person voice of Darisse, as she narrates recent events, both before and after the tragedy that Reyna inadvertently caused. Our hearts go out to her; she is a woman who functions with such limited options her only bargaining tool with her patronizing, rule-wielding ex-husband is to offer him fellatio. That is how she gains access to her daughter. So, when she thinks, "A person as sad as she was shouldn't have to do this," we are right there with her, tangled in the weariness of her soul. You can't get closer to a character than that.
Okay, then why does this shift in perspective work so well? I believe that when the narrative returns to Reyna's first-person voice in the last chapter, it creates a change in texture that makes us feel urgency once again. In terms of the novel's design, the first person bookends the middle chapters, making Reyna's chapters distinct, bringing her problem to the forefront where it overshadows the others. The bookends suggest that Reyna holds this community of people together, not literally, she doesn't engage with or know, most of them, but in the design of the novel her story gives order, importance, even, in a sense, a larger meaning beyond the specifics and details. Mostly, it makes her distinct. She is the center: inventive, rigorously honest, and unafraid of moral complexity.
The book-ending that the first person creates in this novel gives authority to the prose and that's why it feels right. We don't question it. When her voice returns, it simply feels like we've come home.