Wish You Were Here, by Stewart O’Nan
August 10, 2015
Extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances: so Stephen King has described literary fiction in contrast with plot-driven “genre” fare. For me, though, this doesn’t seem quite right.
The people in Stewart O’Nan’s “Wish You Were Here” are quite ordinary. I would think that for most people, there is an easily recognizable sibling, parent, or neighbour in any of the characters, even after we have been made deeply familiar with them through the course of their inner dialogue, which comprises the narrative of this book. What to serve for dinner, how to fill the empty hours of vacation, cleaning, and other minutiae of life while navigating one’s relationships: its exactly this ordinariness, this commonality of experience, that makes the characters so real and the story worthwhile.
Nine members of an extended family have gathered by Lake Chautauqua in New York State for one last week at their summer cottage. Emily, the single-minded, recently widowed matriarch, has decided to sell it. She’s traveled with Arlene, her sister-in-law. Ken is Emily’s son, Lise is his wife, Sam and Ella are their kids. Meg, Emily’s daughter, arrives with her children Sarah and Justin.
Through chapters shifting between the points of view of each of these characters, their interior lives are revealed. As the view changes, so does the meaning of exterior action: a character’s choice is reflected through the eyes of another, and the action takes on a completely different flavour. The effect from what seems like a common device is acute, its reality sharpened by O’Nan’s ability to draw the details of ordinary lives and ordinary emotions.
Everyone knows these feelings. Everyone knows how to feel annoyance with someone else, or what failure feels like, or loss, or infatuation, or the simple happiness of the simplest successes. Not every writer can evoke that familiarity with such sharpness and ease. Stewart O’Nan is probably one of the best writers of the commonplace in existence.
This is even done with what might be considered an extraordinary situation. Ella and Sarah are young teenage cousins. Ella is plain, Sarah is beautiful and perfect. Ella realizes that she is falling in love with Sarah, and beyond the quick realization of what this means socially and personally for her, her slowly opening infatuation is as real as the first love of any teenager. The special circumstance of a girl finding herself in love with another girl is so expertly written, so filled with the ordinariness of teenage longing and secret love, that the matter of their sexes is incidental. The handling of the characters is so true, and O’Nan’s ability to lead a reader along the true course of a young life in the condition of falling in love is so good, that what matters, in the end, is the way that story is told. The words themselves, their deftness and even-handedness, are the startling success in this book, even as they disappear while the narrative proceeds.
This deftness extends to dialogue. Sarah is wondering about the old toys in the cottage, saying, “And didn’t we have like a fire engine?” There is no hesitancy in the use of the discourse particle “like” here, and it flows so naturally, and does not endlessly reappear, that one marvels at the level of realism so simply achieved. Mixed with the point-of-view narrative, which does not seek to mimic a character’s dialogue irrespective of their age, the effect is beautiful. For example, in the midst of her desperation and on account of some minor acquiescence to Sarah, Ella thinks that “[s]ometimes love was giving in to someone.” Its immediacy and suddenness is the true context of a young adolescent’s life. This sort of thing is in clear contrast to the straining teenage dialogue in Chris Bohjalian’s “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands”, where artifice is etched on every page.
Instead of the narrative simply repeating the dialogue style in the third person, something one might expect from a lesser writer, the internal discourse on display is as complex or as uncomplicated as the character portrayed. So, Justin and Sam, both about ten, speak as one would expect, while the point-of-view narrative is not muddied by the truncated vocabulary of a child. Instead, the narrative is precise but simplified, as when Justin briefly thinks that he wouldn’t be able to find Sarah if fire were to break out in the movie theatre. The non-sequitur works well in service of Justin’s somewhat paranoid character, and in illustrating the slightly chaotic associative thinking of a kid that age.
While there are other stellar scenes involving the youngest characters, such as Justin’s success at mini-golf and his beautifully portrayed childish pride in the prize he takes home, he and Sam are least developed. Drawn broadly, their interior lives are not quite discernible. Why does Sam steal? What has made Justin so fearful of everything? There may be bare hints, but these issues are not explored in as meaningful a way as they are for other characters, and in the end, the boys become automatons of prepubescent selfishness.
The adults are most intricately portrayed, from Ken’s scuttled vocational plans to the chaos of Meg’s addictions. It’s here where the juxtaposition of a character’s actions with their observation by other characters is truly remarkable. What seems to Lise like the baffling behaviour of an elderly eccentric is revealed to be a long-standing interpersonal battle of wits when the view shifts to Emily later on. This is done with thoughtfulness and the lightest of touches by O’Nan, who keeps completely out of the way at all times: the characters and their study is paramount.
Such success is not uninterrupted, however. O’Nan occasionally lapses into soaring narrative that mostly serves to remove a reader from the naturalness of everything built up thus far. So, for example, when Arlene is ruminating on an old love, and on the decades that have passed in her life while the cottage has remained constant, she considers “the wars and great changes”, and suddenly feels “buoyed up towards the larger question of the stars and the earth and eternity.”
But these occurrences are rare, and the narrative is mostly tuned tightly to the dialogue. When Emily feels confronted on her decision to sell the property, she finds herself alone with Arlene and a taut, one-sided conversation ensues. The dialogue is prickly, short, and true, and the scene ends in exactly the same way: “They sat side by side, not talking. A thread of music blew across the water. The stars beamed and twinkled. The bell tower rang the half hour.” Such perfect confluence of dialogue and narrative is the norm.
“Wish You Were Here” flows slowly to an ending that continues to reflect reality: not much is resolved, there are no sweeping character arcs, good (or bad) news does not descend on all as though decreed, and the course of whatever action there has been is as unsure as any of life. Back at home, with events having tracked pretty much as they would with any group of actual people, Emily is alone, and finds herself immediately busy with the ongoing routine of maintaining a life. There’s nothing extraordinary in this. It simply is, and it reflects so deeply on what it means to have life that the ordinariness of the characters, and the exquisite skill Stewart O’Nan displays in drawing them, makes this one of the best reads this year for me.