Monday, October 19, 2015

"After the Parade," by Lori Ostlund

Although I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I have been putting off writing about Lori Ostlund’s wonderful novel, “After the Parade” (Scribner, 2015). Why? Because I liked it so very much that I am afraid of not being able to do it justice in this short post. But I have decided to just plunge in, and try to convey a little bit of how compelling and truthful this amazing novel is. I read and was so impressed by Ostlund’s collection of short stories, “The Bigness of the World” (about which I posted on 12/21/10), so I was primed to like this novel, her first, and it more than lived up to my high expectations. The main character, Aaron, is (like Ostlund herself) originally from the Midwest, which both influenced him greatly (for better and for worse) and made him realize he had to escape it. He was “rescued” by his much older mentor and lover Walter, had a good life with him in New Mexico (also a place that Ostlund lived for some years) but eventually felt he had to establish his own life as a separate person, and left, rather suddenly and alone, for San Francisco (where Ostlund now lives). In San Francisco (here I shift to the present day) he works as an ESL teacher in a fly-by-night type school, and lives in a rather dismal apartment in a renovated (just barely) garage. He is alone much of the time, and very lonely (loneliness is a dominant theme in the novel), but he also at last feels free to explore and discover the kind of life he will lead from now on. He alternates between sadness and a pronounced interest in what he sees as he moves about the city. The novel, too, alternates, in this case between the present day and the past, allowing the readers to gradually understand what has made Aaron the person he is. The scenes in the past and in the present are both powerful. But because the past was in some ways so painful, so quietly dramatic, those scenes are perhaps more intense than those in the present. Aaron’s abusive father died dramatically in a fall from a parade vehicle (thus the title of the book) when Aaron was a young child, and his mother, although loving, became vaguer and vaguer and finally disappeared from his life a few years later. So he was essentially abandoned and on his own, although there were people who took care of his basic needs. How does a young person recover from such abandonment and from the claustrophobia and scrutiny of a very small town, especially when he is different, not only in his sexual identity but also in his love of language and books, and his sense that there is a bigger world (note allusion to Ostlund’s first book’s title) out there? Aaron has escaped his past, but has not yet recovered from it. Moving to San Francisco is his attempt to forward that process, but once he has made the move, he does nothing dramatic; that is not his style. His tendency is to walk, think, observe, and of course read. He has friends, but only in a sort of politely remote way. He enjoys his teaching, and is fond of his students and worries about them, but there is of course a distance between him and them (although some of them share his outsider status, for various reasons), and in any case they cannot fill the void in his life. Only at the very end of the novel do we see a glimpse of a possibly more connected future for Aaron. Words such as “precise” and “attentive” have been used about Ostlund’s writing, and these are very apropos. Her writing is not flashy (that’s not her style), but her characters, settings, and events are so carefully observed that each word, each description matters. Her control over her material is impressive, a gift to her readers. At times, too, the writing is suffused with a sort of wry, low-key humor, especially when Ostlund focuses on some of the minor characters, or on Aaron’s everyday life. “After the Parade” has been well reviewed and well received, and I am so pleased that it has been getting the level of attention is has. The fact that it is set in San Francisco is of course a bonus. Oh, and that beautiful confetti-strewn cover.
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