Books

Liz Moore, My Father, Fate, and Free Will

So Facebook’s “gone public.” Not a minute too soon for that company, so uncharitable to privacy. But after reading Liz Moore’s intensely private Heft, I’ll say it now: I don’t think Facebook is going to do too well on the market. The company makes its money off of ad placement, and its allure to both advertisers and its financial backers is that the site is basically a word-of-mouth machine: people on Facebook (we) are expected to endorse goods and services that we approve of to all of our “friends,” of which we each have apparently hundreds, if not thousands. But what Facebook and its investors don’t seem to understand—and what Moore and her endearing misfit characters know all too well—is that the number of “friends” you really have, the people who really influence your behavior, is way, way less than that FB number. Astronomically less. Think unopened economy-size bag of Ruffles, then think of opening that bag and peering in at its actual contents. Then think much, much worse than that. Like, eat all the chips but one or two. Because really, we are very, very alone.

So I guess I picked up Moore’s lonesome, graceful novel at the right time. Half the book is set in one house, a palatial three-story Brooklyn brownstone populated by a desperately lonely man named Arthur Opp—a former English professor in his late fifties and the first of the novel’s two narrators—who hasn’t been outside in a decade. And he hasn’t been off the first floor in nearly as long: Arthur is immense. Morbidly—and, it would seem, moribund-ly. It’s impossible to overstate this. Arthur weighs 550 pounds. He has a stomach that, when he lies down, pancakes out so that it’s “nearly reaching the edges of [his] queen-sized bed.” Though he’s been living large his whole life, Arthur’s current glut, and related self-imposed isolation, are the result of losing his university position after rumors spread of his romance with one of his students, Charlene Turner. Arthur subsists by ordering food and clothing online, reading his many thick books, watching daytime TV (Dr. Phil and Cash Cab are favorites), and chucking great bags of waste from the front door to the curb weekly. And though Arthur claims at one point to have had a number of friends, the dearest of them died in 1997, and his mother, with whom he shared this house for most of his life, followed not long after. All other outside players have long since faded. At the time of narration, Arthur has literally and metaphorically eaten all his Ruffles—he’s lost everyone but Charlene, whom he’s kept as a pen pal, and he hasn’t heard from her in years.

Early on, Arthur receives a letter from Charlene, revealing that seventeen years ago, not long after their last encounter, she had a son. Charlene now wants Arthur to help with college applications; this galvanizes Arthur, and in anticipation of possible visitors he hires a maid, Yolanda, to clean his disaster of a house. And because we sense the novel will be subject to greater forces, this relationship between Arthur and Yolanda provides some of the most unexpectedly tender moments in the book: with the simple act of returning weekly to Arthur’s home, the diminutive Yolanda helps revitalize and rehabilitate him, reconnecting him, a stair at a time, to the outside world.

When my dad was just eighteen, on full athletic scholarship to George Washington University (basketball and baseball), he threw his back out on the court and herniated a couple of lumbar vertebrae. He went through surgery and played a couple years of ball for the school, only to injure his back again—same thing, except this time, believe it or not, he threw it out in a violent sneezing fit. Over the years he’s herniated something like ten lower vertebrae, the worst single episode a 1987 car accident, when I was five, a wreck I was in and toddled away from. He’s not been active since, can’t fly, run, bike, rollerblade, kayak—nothin’. Can’t ride in a car for much more than a half-hour, either—and not at all if the weather’s bad enough to tighten him up—and some days he has difficulty walking. My dad’s now sixty-five, hasn’t been on a family vacation since the wreck, and hasn’t been able to visit the places my younger brother and I have lived during and since college. Due to the scar tissue from all those unrefined surgeries in the ’60s, doctors haven’t been able do anything except prescribe him pain pills, which he spurns. They won’t operate; there’s a good chance it will paralyze him.

So now my dad has this special chair. It’s like a director’s chair, light and collapsible, and he pads it with a couple of detachable cushions and takes it with him whenever he expects to sit for a significant amount of time—to restaurants, movies, the dentist, concerts. It’s more comfortable for him that way. But also, it lets people know there’s something wrong with him. Before the chair, his injury was completely invisible, could only be seen in his stilted walk and his fattening belly—though by no means an Arthur Opp, queen-sized belly, it grew unchecked over the years without exercise. A former All-American athlete, my dad was seen around town when I was younger doing the only exercises he could—bizarre calisthenics on the sidewalk—was in fact seen by my high school classmates, who stopped me in the halls to say things like, “Hey I saw your dad out walking the other day and at first I thought he was a retard.” And I’d tell them that my father has a bad back, but everyone’s father has a bad back, bad backs are the disease of fathers, and so I felt compelled to further explain myself, to defend my father, his courtside tumble, the subsequent car wreck, the herniated discs that make his lower spine look like a column of unjustified print, discs unreachable by scalpel through a knot of scar tissue and a labyrinth of frayed nerves, one of them being the sciatic nerve, pinched at the top by a slipped disc and wired down the length of his left leg, a yard-long caterpillar of fire. So though it might be a stretch, and I chastised myself when I first thought it, in Arthur Opp I can’t help but see some qualities of my father writ large.

But that’s pity, and my dad wouldn’t put up with that. Liz Moore wouldn’t, either.

Arthur Opp is an elegant narrator. For people like me, whose first thought at the words “obese and bookish” was Ignatius J. Reilly, closely followed by the comic-book guy from The Simpsons, Arthur is a pleasant surprise. His voice is charmingly laconic for a lit professor, precise rather than pedantic, and downy soft—as plush and accommodating as I imagine his belly to be. But not as sweaty. These are short, sweet sentences, guys. Here is Arthur describing Charlene: “One of the things I loved most about her, what I valued, was her lack of awareness. It was as if she did not see her surroundings, was not aware of elbowing the man next to her in her hurry to be seated, in her hurry to return to invisibility. She was like this, always.” Arthur’s lucidity also gives you a different sense of his weight, that it really isn’t there—though reminders of his size and limitations are never far. (For instance, Arthur indulges in rich, descriptive language only when it comes to food.) And this all adds up to a soft, inverted sort of power in Moore’s prose that I suppose you could call poignant, but is at its heart, I feel, a function of vulnerability, of breakage potential. With Arthur Opp, Moore balances a balloon on the tip of a pin.

This conflict between Arthur’s verbal restraint (both in terms of language and action, literally verbal restraint) and gustatory extravagance manifest themselves on the page in his repetitive use of the academic exclamation “O!” Whether he’s lauding (“O just like that”) or lamenting (“O coward, you coward”) you can’t miss them, these great big eggs scattered throughout Arthur’s pages. And you can’t ignore Moore’s choice here, either—you have to make something of it. Volume, portent, atavism, longing? I keep returning to vulnerability and fragility. Arthur as egg, his girth a shell, shielding an interior emptiness. Or Arthur as that balloon so near bursting. But in response to these Os is another symbol: &. Ampersands are also stamped all over Arthur’s pages, and equally difficult to disregard—Moore often begins sentences, even paragraphs, with them. And in fact, you could reduce the whole story here to the relationship between these two symbols, O and &, lonelies and togethers.

Around page 100, Moore switches voices to a high school baseball wunderkind from Yonkers named Kel Keller. Kel is Charlene’s son, and Kel and Arthur have her in common. (They also may or may not have genes in common, but that’s not clearly resolved until the end of the book.) At a cursory glance, Charlene about does it for the overlapping wedge of the Kel/Arthur Venn diagram: Kel is athletic—Arthur describes Kel’s photograph as “a portrait of potential energy”—and also handsome, impartial to his education, and helplessly popular; Arthur is a fat shut-in professor emeritus. But soon enough it becomes clear that the two narrators share deeper currents. Kel is also desperately lonely: the man who raised him abandoned the family when Kel was four; he’s the poor kid in a tony school district; and his mother has become a full-blown alcoholic, blacked out by dinner, seemingly as reclusive and resigned and moribund as Arthur. So in spite of Kel’s charm and popularity, it’s soon apparent that most if not all of his many connections to the real world are tenuous.

Though Kel’s narration is voluble, dynamic, and concerned with detail—resulting in a high school world that’s as accurate and timely as any I’ve read—much of this world feels almost unreal. Moore achieves this mainly, I think, through Kel’s fragmented narration, and his elision of quotation marks. I say “his elision” because this feels more like Kel’s choice than Moore’s, really. It’s not the traditional authorial intention here, the Cormac McCarthy thing, bowdlerizing artificial boundaries between us humans and the world around us; it’s more an upshot of Kel’s indifference to this distinction. Kel narrates his life as if he’s detailing a blur, like reading the seams of a fastball—or better, a blistering curve, cutting from past to present, or vice versa.

I look around now at the girls in this room and have sudden visions of some of them unclothed. I’ve lain on the grass in a park with some of them. I’ve been in a bed with some of them. I’ve put my hands all over them, all over their rib cages and breasts and legs and necks and, rarely, when I was feeling tender, their faces. I’ve taken off their clothing and they’ve taken off mine and we’ve acted out whatever rage of anxiety or lust we felt toward each other and then we got up off the bed—laughing sometimes, ashamed sometimes—and rejoined the party, subtly or unsubtly, depending.

Some might say that my dad’s also dealt with his lot by making a sort of blur of it, a fantasy. Several years ago, after his parents died, he and my mom moved into his childhood home, a house my dad’s father designed and built himself, so you could say that he’s now literally living in his past. And from our living room ceiling dangle a dozen or more mobiles, also designed by my grandfather, that make the room look like an acid trip. Adding to this effect, my father sometimes hangs mats of labyrinths on the walls, labyrinths he designed, a hobby that, again, you could say, is quite literally an inward escape. And taking all of this into consideration, you’d be forgiven for wondering—I hope I am—what about my dad has been more profoundly affected: his body or his mind.

Kel’s athletic future, too, isn’t tested physically so much as it is emotionally, as Charlene’s condition grows more and more grim. And one of my only hang-ups with this book is that, for a high school C student, Kel demonstrates remarkable sensitivity, artfulness, and perspicacity. But I had to let this go: Kel’s ignorance of his emotional gifts is simply part of his allure as narrator. It made me remember how often I write off the silent kids in the corners of my English classroom, eyes shadowy under the brims of their ball caps, only to surprise me with the depths of their reluctant narratives. So, as much as I wanted to ascribe Kel’s wisdom to Moore’s negligence, to her own voice seeping through, my caviling could never hold up in the face of Kel’s tragic poise.

Moore sticks with Kel for another hundred-plus pages before bouncing the narrative between the two narrators, letting their juxtaposed voices ring out against one another. Moore’s first novel, 2009’s The Words of Every Song—a series of 14 vignettes, each from a different voice in the music industry—relies almost exclusively on such juxtaposition. But where a strikingly similar music-industry book, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, succeeds in achieving startling emotional depth with its fragmented ensemble of voices, Moore’s effort spent too much time in what I’ll call differentiation—sketching characters, quirks, settings, scenarios, and lyrical gimmicks—resulting in a book that feels like it can’t afford to dwell. But Heft is better. This is no ensemble cast, just a duet; its voices are unaffected, rounded out, and rich, and as we linger with them, their contrasts build and resonate. Arthur apprehensive; Kel kinetic. Arthur struggling outward; Kel spiraling downward. With Heft, Moore fully delivers on the gravity that her title promises.

This book is the colliding of the two sides of my father: the young athletic prodigy viz. the confined adult. And it strikes me that the voices pushing and pulling us through the novel have likely been pushing and pulling my father since his injuries rendered him immobile. Because like Kel, and like many athletes who dedicate their lives to sport, Dad wasn’t only tested physically, but also psychologically and emotionally. Where Kel reels from the tragic loss of his mother, my dad lost his kid brother, Roger. Roger died at eighteen, when my dad was twenty-two. This age would have seen my dad in college, when he was playing serious ball, but—partially due to his back, and partially in response to his brother’s death—my dad dropped out of school and went peregrine, didn’t return for nearly a decade. And I’ve never known, and likely never will, whether this was the result of my dad’s injury, his shortcomings as an athlete, the loss of his brother, or all three, will never know for sure whether his wandering was ultimately his choice.

Tragedy will find you, whoever you are, and sometimes lay with you or inside of you for a great deal of time, and though you can’t avoid it, this is actually the high court of free will: you can respond. Arthur swallows his pain, swirls it in with the peanut butter and vanilla ice cream so dear to him, and piles his own flesh on top for protection. Kel shields himself with uniform silence, the peace of the pitcher’s mound. But the joy of the book is in watching these guys right themselves, of seeing how they choose to define family, to truly connect in defiance of the seductive appeal of silence, of solipsism and self-waste. And ultimately, this is the gift of Heft: an affirmation that our fate and our free will aren’t mutually exclusive.

My dad, nearly fifty years after his injury, has achieved motion again, and rather remarkably, though now it’s sort of an internal motion, designing labyrinths. Different from mazes, labyrinths are a single, twisting, mathematically balanced path to the center, then it’s turn and right back out. And it would seem that with one planned path, you have no choice—that, as life seems to Arthur and Kel, to my dad, maybe to us all, we’re often subjects to pain beyond our control. But in this elegant novel, Moore shows us that when it comes to paths, we do have some pretty obvious, if difficult choices, and the triumphs of these lonely characters remind us where true connection lives, when it really matters, and what your choices might do to transform you, if you let them. And also that, in the end, I’m right—that I’ll never know any of these things about my father, never can and never will, not like I know about Arthur and Kel, that I’ll never know if I’m right about my dad’s fate, or his pain, or his labyrinths, and in fact will never know anything more about the man, as long as I keep on not asking, not connecting, not choosing.

Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.