Published: August 4, 2011
Everything Beautiful Began After
By Simon Van Booy
Harper Collins, 2011
402 pgs, $14.99
The story in this novel is simple enough, revolving around a young, timid, international love triangle involving an artist, a linguist and an archaeologist. Each is youthful, beautiful and achingly sad. Each lives in his/her own head, unable to translate the poetry that breathes inside of them … and if this already sounds too twee for you, then you won’t stick with the rest of this book. For those who are still interested, I invite you to let yourself be transported to a vaguely vintage but somehow modern Athens, the sensuous, crumbling backdrop to Van Booy’s black and white film.
Each paragraph in this book could serve as a stanza. The structure, which veers from third person perspective to an intensely intimate second person, ending with the third again, almost reads like three separate poetry collections (four if you count the dream-like prologue), which is not to say that it doesn’t work as a novel. It’s a novel whose prose leaves you so enraptured, the plot almost doesn’t matter. The characters are carved out of inner monologue, gentle description and hinted-at experiences. Readers are left to judge for themselves - nothing is spoon-fed or obvious. We are left with sparse poetic threads and it’s our job to weave them together to see the whole tapestry of story. Van Booy is an unabashedly romantic writer. In his soft, shadowy contours, one detects notes of Proust, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and for those of you who are modern readers, the faintest whiff of Jeanette Winterson.
In Rebecca, George and Henry, we have three troubled souls who feel somehow out of time with the world. Rebecca is a French artist who was abandoned by her mother, never knew her father and was raised by her gentle grandfather. She becomes a stewardess (not a flight attendant - there’s that vaguely vintage feel I was talking about) to seemingly get away from her detached, lonely life. She ends up in Athens, where she meets George, an American writer and linguist who wears wool ties and dress shoes every day, even in the Mediterranean heat. George is shy and alcoholic, as crumpled as his sweaty Oxfords. Shuffled around New England boarding schools and unloved by his widowed mother, George now spends his nights in Greek cafes, weepy, shy and utterly Proustian.
Handsome, Welsh and educated, Henry is the most confident of the three. In love with Athens, its philosophy and history, Henry has come to learn what lives beneath. Henry is an archaeologist who digs deep into the past, unearthing buried secrets, and it’s possible to argue that he does the same thing and serves the same purpose with Rebecca and George.
Without spoiling the story or giving too much away, I will say that a romantic triangle is formed, feelings are bared and broken, and the whole situation is handled with a maturity that Van Booy possesses in spades, even if his characters seem young. The oldest character in the book, one could argue, would be Athens herself. The author imbues the city with such rich detail that it becomes a personality, and also a mirror for our main characters. “Set high above the city on a rock, tourists thread the crumbling passageways, shuffle across shrinking cakes of marble worn by centuries of curiosity. Outside imagination, the Parthenon is nothing more than stacked rubble. And such is the secret to life in a city ravaged by the enthusiasm for its childhood. Athens lives in the shadow of what it cannot remember, of what could never be again.”
Published: July 21, 2011 (http://the570.com/columns/the-fine-print-1.1177891)
With the announcement this week of Borders closing its last 400 stores and laying off over 11,000 employees, yours truly got to thinking about bookstores, e-readers and the people-readers of the future. Scranton, a small city but a city nonetheless, will no longer have a brick and mortar general bookstore. What exactly does that mean?
Online shopping is convenient. Amazon can charge less because it employs much fewer people than brick and mortar stores. Their wares arrive quickly in the mail. You can shop for more than just books in one place. I get it. I really do.
What I don’t get, and what I can’t stop thinking about, from my 11 years of retail bookstore experience (in four different stores, both chain and independent), are the people who I’ve met. The couple who told me, “I always knew I’d meet my mate in a bookstore, hovering around the geeky sci-fi books. Sure enough, we met in this store eight years ago, and now we’re married.” The woman who told me, “When my daughter died, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I came to this store every day for months. I must have read every religious book you have in the store. The people I met here during that time saved my life.” The man who approached me with hesitation, embarrassed to ask for “easy” books to help him learn how to read. He was in his 30s and had never learned how. The teenage boy who wanted a book that could teach him to defend his mother from her abusive boyfriend. The couple from Argentina who studied English by reading bilingual poetry books out loud to each other.
There is no discount, no gadget, no brand, no gimmick that can replace that sort of human connection. Bookstores are gathering places. They are community. The people who work in them have experience and talent. Recommending a book to someone requires conversation, give and take, interaction. It requires skill. I like to think that people’s subjective, arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous reading tastes can’t be boiled down to “other customers who bought this book also bought these.” I like to think that people “turn off” when they open a paper book. After a work day filled with computer screens and smartphones, and evenings filled with televisions or laptops, I like to think that people find comfort by cracking open an analogue dead-tree smell-good story.
Or maybe they don’t. I’m sure there are plenty of people who feel satisfied to pop open their Kindles, Nooks, iPads and Kobos. I just think there should be a choice for those who don’t.
Because there are people who buy some books electronically and others in paper form (40 percent of book readers, according to the Wall Street Journal), or people who have an iPod and still collect certain artists on CD or vinyl, I think there always has to be room for the hybrid consumer. Books and music are culture. Even the lowest-brow, blood-sucking, alien-fornicating, bodice-ripping mass market paranormal romance has its place in that long line of history, and I have a hard time believing that people can get all the culture they need from the internet.
Regardless, you can’t stop the future from happening. My wish right now is that those 11,000 employees, many of them passionate book-readers, find new jobs, quickly, and hold their heads a little higher for having been conduits for culture in so many towns and cities in America, and in so many people’s lives.