Gorgeous + Quiet: Kimball and Krivak

by Weston Cutter

Both Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn and Michael Kimball’s Us are phenomenally quiet books, in the very best ways. I’m as much a sucker as the next guy for zinging, acrobatic sentences, seething with verbal musculature, and I’m as wary of quiet language as anybody—like any great writing style, it can easily fall apart if employed by someone without the requisite skill to deploy it (think, for instance, of all the bad Carver-type stories there are, or the bad Wallace-like ones, or whatever, etc.). If you’re not clear on what a quiet book is, procure for yourself a copy of Brian Moore’s Catholics and be knocked upon your ass.

There’s a very different (from Moore’s and from each other) sort of quiet in each of these books, so I don’t want to spend too much time considering them together—they’re each stellar works and deserving of all sorts of time and love. I should, however, mention that they’re both books out by smaller-ish pressed—Krivak’s from Bellevue Literary Press (yup, the one which released Tinkers, the Pulitzer winner) and Kimball’s from Tyrant Books, an imprint/offshoot of New York Tyrant, one of maybe the five most compelling lit journals presently created.

            So, let’s first to Us go: what you’ll hit in this book is a directness which, if you’re not careful, will reveal some scarily true things about yourself. Here’s the sort of directness I’m talking about: “They came inside our house to take my wife away from me and to the hospital. They banged their way through the front door and into the living room. One of them carried an oxygen tank, an oxygen mask, and a metal box that had drawers inside it that folded up and out when he opened it up.” That’s the start of the chapter “How They Helped My Wife to Breathe,” which begins on page 13 of the advance reader copy of Us (which, for the record, has been published overseas already, but is making its U.S. debut at present), and it’s worth taking a second to consider the writing style—or, if you’re the type to feel this way, any debate about what might be considered Kimball’s lack of style. It’s worth at least wondering about this style because of the power it grants the book.

Because look at those sentences above (the whole book’s like that; it’s 100% fair to talk about them as representative). Because look at what they’re doing. Because, sure, if you want to read them with impatience you’ll feel them frustratingly cumbersome and almost comically overtalkative, establishing and keying into facts too directly over and over, as if the sentences have been built by someone with a brain injury. Which seems, well, whatever it seems like to you, until you realize that Us is, in fact, being told through the voice of someone who has, in fact, suffered a massive injury, and the injury is against his self, and the injury is the sudden potential of not having his wife next to him—the book opens with the man waking up after his wife has just had a seizure in her sleep and cannot wake up thereafter.

Look, the thing above, about the book’s style revealing things to you: one of the reasons Us is such strange magic (I’m not even sure how much I like or love the book, but I’m very sure that there was a sustained hit to my insides from reading the thing) is that the tone will piss you off if you’ve got a calloused soul. It’s really that simple. Us brings up something strange and terrifying to consider: that the real beauty and magic of being alive—a long marraige made of compromise and attempting to do right by the person one’s sworn before god to do right by—may not even be able to be communicated by anything more fancy than the simplest, most basic statements (what, after all, is sadder to read than “My wife stopped breathing”? If you can actually connect with those words, can empathize with whatever speaker’s uttered them, can many statements be more devastating?). Kimball’s Us is a weirdly challenging book: it asks for not just our patience and attention, but our quiet. It in fact asks for an almost holy quiet: it asks us to quiet the part of our brain constantly buzzed, trying to cleverize each of life’s instants, trying to ironicize any offering. Us resists, and for that alone you should read it (but there’s plenty more reason to read it, not least is the searching, fumbling, totally humble way Kimball writes himself into the story of his grandparents and tries to understand what it is that’s in between people who’ve spent a lifetime beside each other). It’s a gorgeous book.

Krivak’s the author of one of my all-time favorite memoirs, The Long Retreat, and his novel casts an entirely different spell than that nonfiction whopper did. The quiet of The Sojourn is both, to this reader’s eyes/ears, a matter of setting (it’s WWI—Colorado at the very start, and then to Austria-Hungary), and a matter of language being functionally clipped and withheld—the book’s characters (Josef and Zlee, primarily, but also Josef’s father) are…it’s hard to say. Taciturn might work; thrifty with every resource, emotion included, might suffice.

It’s hard to even say what this book’s about, honestly—it pairs with Us nicely in that way, in that the plot is, sure, significant, but is not end-all-be-all. Josef and Zlee are gunners for the Austro-Hungarian empire, and are deadeye shots; there’s death; there’s a massive march to Sardinia once the soldiers have been captured; there’s a homecoming. The accumulation of these narrative data don’t, in the end, matter much to the reader, I don’t think—or they’re not what principally matters. Here’s what does:

“We marched south by southwest. The clouds lifted and I could tell by the sun which direction we were going in. A young Italian patrolling our column (no more than a boy in a uniform so new, it shined for not having been washed yet) hit me in the shoulder with some martial-looking ornamental staff and the pain that shot down my arm to my hand became searing and relentless, so that I halted and tottered and nearly dropped, but the prisoner behind me (a Bosnian, his accent thick and guttoral, though I understood him) sait to be strong and held me up.” That’s a fairly representative bulk of words from the Sojourn.

What’s most impressive, though, about this book is that it pushes at notions of identity and home. I’m trying to think of how to say this without making it sound sexier than it feels in the book, but maybe there’s little chance: look, those great old Dylan lines, how does it feel/on your own/no direction home…? You’ve got the melody in your head now? Well, so let’s posit that that emotion, that actual lived experience he sang of, had happened infinitely by the time Dylan got around to his version of the experience in ’65 or whenever—obvious, right? It happened to returning soldiers from WWI and it happened to displaced migrant workers, whatever. It’d happened plenty. I’m not trying to make light of what The Sojourn is doing, because it’s doing some amazing things, not least of which is that it’s taking seriously, and tracking with gorgeous urgency and fidelity, one young man’s experience of having to track and redefine notions of ‘self’ and ‘home’ after massive upheaval. Which, of course, is a totally shit way of describing what’s actually happening in the book, but that’s the glory of a review: no matter how much a review fails to adequately address the beauty and glory of the book in question, the resolution’s simple: Buy it. Read it. You’d be best served at present by buying both the Krivak and the Kimball. You’d be best served by getting quiet and listening close to each.

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