You know those books you should have just gone ahead and read because people you trust swore by them? You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett has been sitting on our shelves since I think 2003. It is Sean’s copy and he and our friend Kevin were the ones swearing. In my own defense, each were wrecked by the read (in a good way) and sad was a word oft repeated in my presence. Haslett delves further than melancholy and shoots straight for deepening aches. I didn’t want to be sad then, nor did I particularly want to be sad the other day when I picked it up. But I am so glad I did.
Adam Haslett explores lives that appear shuttered by loss and discovers entire worlds hidden inside them. An aging inventor, burning with manic creativity, tries to reconcile with his estranged gay son. An orphaned boy draws a thuggish classmate into a relationship of escalating guilt and violence. A genteel middle-aged woman, a long-time resident of a rest home, becomes the confidante of a lovelorn teenaged volunteer. With Chekovian restraint and compassion, conveying both the sorrow of life and the courage with which people rise to meet it, You Are Not a Stranger Here is a triumph. —back cover.
The title is perfect even before one encounters the quote in the 5th story, “War’s End,” when Mrs. McLaggen tells Paul, “You’re not a stranger here. […] I recognized you somehow, not like I’d met you or such, but nonetheless” (106). If you escape without recognizing the characters in these stories somehow, then lucky you? To be fair, I do believe Haslett has the rare gift to make you care for his characters, even in their most raw states, even when you want to look away or ignore their existence. The reasons why a Reader might want to look away may be out of loathing, or painful recollection, or fear of what a character’s vulnerability exposes. The critical thing is how Haslett compels the Reader to remain transfixed, to see a story through—I’m not entirely sure how he does it, and so consistently.
I think Haslett tapped some desperate optimism in me. I wanted to see some sort of hopeful ending. Foolish Reader. And then there were, in other cases, naked fascination with his depictions of mental illness and the culturally tormented. Haslett employs the senses, slips in and out of memory, internal and external, lulling the Reader into a riveting pacing.
There are a lot of similar themes explored throughout but they exist in varying concoctions. So while there may be a pervasive sense of fear, alienation, and sorrow throughout the book, each story is its own. I know people approach short story collections differently, but I would strongly recommend at least beginning with the first and saving the last for last.
What follows are remarks upon each of the stories. I tried to keep it brief. (I used the goodreads star-rating system.)
1]—“Notes to My Biographer” (1-23). >5 stars< This first-person narrative follows the fractured mind and estranged life of an aging inventor who would reconcile with the only child of his three who would see him. “He has a good mind, my son, always has, and somewhere the temerity to use it, to spear mediocrity in the eye, but in a world that encourages nothing of the sort, the curious boy becomes the anxious man. He must suffer his people’s regard for appearances. Sad” (9). Apart from sexual preferences, we learn that father and son have a lot in common, but the two have different strategies for getting along; coming from different perspectives and ages.
Reconciliation is only for a father and son, but to witness a man reconciling his own beliefs and actions. We see this in how Franklin makes mental notes to his Biographer so as to get particular details correct and in his explanations for his manic behavior. Franklin’s inner landscape is fascinating; but at what cost does he pay to maintain it? The externalized consequences give us some clue.
2]—“The Good Doctor” (24-47) >3 ½ stars< (3rd person). Having always been strongly affected by the hurting, Frank turns it into a vocation. Fresh out of school, he practices psychiatric medicine for the underserved feeling this is where he can be freer to engage in patients’ lives and therapies. He encounters a young educated mother who challenges his “goodness.” Is he more dependent upon them, then they upon him? When he medicates, that rare moment when we meet him, what is he medicating against? How does this compare to what the woman has and is suffering? What is escapable, and what is not? [expectations: for self/other, sex/gender, roots] External forces and failures and our means of coping; and what empathy truly means.
3}—“The Beginnings of Grief” (48-64) >5 stars< (1st person). This one was hard after the last, but even alone, it would have been difficult. It was the most difficult of all the stories because of the violence the unnamed protagonist draws upon himself. Just where is his sexual attraction to Gramm, his “thuggish classmate,” founded. It is good to have the early stages of grief in mind while reading about this orphaned teenaged male. The language is raw and holy hell but I hurt for the unnamed boy—and even Gramm.
4]—“Devotion” (65-88) >5 stars< “Being replaced. That was the fear” (85). Devotion is the story of aging siblings who have sort of ended up remaining in the house together. The story is aptly named as the two share mutual affections and come to grips with the sacrifices such devotion takes. There is melancholy, but there is something other and quite beautiful; it is found in the absence of abandonment; those that remain when other ties are severed.
5]—“War’s End” (89-117) >4 stars< Paul is depressed and dealing with the effects of his condition and medication on his wife and their marriage. Finding lucidity on a trip abroad (made for both their sakes), he contemplates a “weighing of needs” (105). He knows he is a burden to the woman he loves, but he is also afraid of what the medication and depression is doing to him, “the idea that so much of him was a pure and blinded waste” (94). This is a fear pervasive in the story. There is the slow decay, a wearing away and wearing down of selves, relationships, lives… There are so many courageous individuals in this story, and incredible love and devotion. It is both very moving and very sad.
6]—“Reunion” (118-137) >3 ½ stars< James moves from order into chaos; from an image of normalcy into the ravages of his illness; and ever in pursuit of his father to whom he writes letters. The third person narrative holds the focus and cleanly frames the story. James and his relationships are touched upon, inferred, take place in dark parks, in memories, in routine, and are reflected in his and Patrick’s unfulfilled flirtation. James has his reasons for withdrawal, but the loneliness and disintegration are heart-breaking. He is focused and determined, and in a way I can’t help view as self-flagellating. He would look different from how he actually he is. He lives among the shamed, the used, in the margins. And he seems surrounded, as if the margins are quite crowded actually. It is remarkable how Haslett keeps a pitiable character from being so. How he gifts James some dignity.
7]—“Divination” (138-164) >5 stars< “You’re a perfectly normal boy” (157), his father insists rather violently. There is a fear of the abnormal and its various implications. And there is a reason to fear as the implications of Samuel’s newly discovered “gift” comes to haunt. The dread and portent are so deftly rendered in this one. I was trembling with it as I read of Samuel’s resignation that he would now live in “the quiet place, beyond the walls of the crowded dwelling” (164). The paralleling of him and his father, what they gain and lose in their respective acknowledgement and denial, is a familiar something I think we all consider more than a few times in our own parent/child relationships.
8]—“My Father’s Business” (165-193) >3 ½ stars< Daniel is bipolar. He is also a young man interested in Philosophy, like his father who has a PhD. Daniel looks back at his medical file with correspondence between different treating doctors as well as the transcripts of tapes he recorded while conducting his research: “Anecdotal Sociology of the Philosophical Urge in Young Men.” Haslett captures Daniel’s mental health condition in the swinging moods illustrated in the interactions recorded in various interviews. He also captures so much more in the interviews asking after where the urge toward philosophy began. For Daniel, he finds his origins for so many of his present-day conditions in his father. There are notable similarities between this story and the first one, “Notes to My Biographer.” And yet they do differ and it is nice to find this one late in the book for some distance. Its late placement allows for some revelation about You Are Not a Stranger Here as a whole as well.
“People whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life were already over. […] This idea of living your life as an elegy, inoculating yourself against the present. So much easier if you can see people though they were just characters from a book. You can still spend time with them. But you have nothing to do with their fate. It’s all been decided. The present doesn’t really matter, it’s just the time you happen to be reading about them. Which makes everything easier. Other people’s pain for instance.” (184-5)
The father suggests that Philosophers contribute to “keeping things at a remove” (185). And it is telling what Daniel does after his journey, once he gets off the train. It is significant that he sees the man with his young sons getting off the train before him. There is a lot of weight, but some humor in this one as well, and a really nice ending.
9]—“The Volunteer” (194-237) >5 stars< Elizabeth had always been fragile mentally, but she experienced a major break at one point and was institutionalized in a Home. When off her meds, she is visited by a 17th century ancestress, Hester. She is also visited by a volunteer from a local High School, Ted. She becomes, in a way, a strange surrogate (grand)mother to the boy whose lost his and could really use a woman’s advice–He has a raging infatuation for a girl at school. The echoes among the women, young, middle-aged, old, and ancient are of interest, but so is Ted who is thrown in the middle of it all, a male image that is on the brink of his predecessors (the males that pair with the women). While generalizations can be made in critique, the story is as intimate as all the others. There are conversations about façade versus the raw underneath. There are the ideas of particular moments, their scenarios that come into conflict with an actuality, the pain and the mess and the potential disappointment. “You and all the inheritors of wealth who think life is a matter of perfected sentiment. You are wrong” (237).
You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett
Anchor Books, 2002; 237 pages, tradepaper [own]
9 short stories; National Book Award Finalist; Pultizer Prize Finalist.