Com­po­nents of sad­ness

DavidHer­man and Madeleine Kings­ley con­sider fic­tion of poignancy and eru­di­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RE­VIEWED BY DAVID HER­MAN

PROB­LEMS WITH PEO­PLE

Blooms­bury, £14.99

T(1994), a huge best­seller that sold nearly four mil­lion copies. Though Guter­son is Jewish (“We’re just lib­eral, sec­u­lar Amer­i­cans with a lit­tle matzah on the side,” he told the JC in 2011), his writ­ing isn’t. Snow Fall­ing on Cedars must be the least Jewish book ti­tle ever. Set in the Amer­i­can north-west, where he grew up, it’s full of moun­tains and trees.

Prob­lems with Peo­ple is Guter­son’s third book of sto­ries. Right from the start, it could not be more Amer­i­can. His first story, the iron­i­cally ti­tled Par­adise, opens with a car driv­ing along a high­way, “public-ra­dio chat­ter on fade”. The land­scape is full of Walmart Su­per­centers, “trail­ers and blight, mini-marts and badly named burger joints.” It’s usu­ally rain­ing. If it’s not rain­ing, it’s snow­ing.

His char­ac­ters are subur­ban mid­dle­class and ei­ther mid­dle-aged or el­derly. They work in com­mer­cial lit­i­ga­tion, teach at col­lege or are re­tired judges. Di­vorced or wid­owed, they go on­line in search of love and use Vi­a­gra.

One woman says of her first boyfriend: “He was okay. Not the star of any­thing. Just... av­er­age.” There’s a flat­ness about them, a deep sad­ness. Guter­son’s sto­ries are like Ray­mond Carver’s re­lo­cated to the north-west. Wel­come to con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica.

Ex­cept for one story about a child- WENTY YEARS on, David Guter­son i s still best known for his first novel, Snow F a l l i ng o n Cedars hood Jewish refugee re­turn­ing to Ber­lin as a tourist, there are few Jews. Or Jewish images or rhythms of speech. Or even Jewish food. When David Gut- er­son’s char­ac­ters eat, they have “two scram­bled eggs and toast with peanut but­ter.”

Who calls that din­ner? The crack­ling, Yid­dish-in­flected prose of Bel­low’s or Mala­mud’s ag­o­nised Jews seek­ing au­then­tic­ity are a mil­lion miles away (even though Mala­mud wrote his best work just down the coast in Ore­gon). Europe and Is­rael barely ex­ist.

And yet, Guter­son’s clear, mat­ter-of­fact prose, with its hum­drum, ev­ery­day ob­jects, packs a con­sid­er­able emo­tional punch.

His sto­ries are about sad, lonely peo­ple, re­cov­er­ing from di­vorce or be­reave­ment. Th­ese are not peo­ple with ideas or back­sto­ries. It takes al­most a dozen pages be­fore we find out the name of the land­lord in the tale called Ten­ant.

Typ­i­cally, when Guter­son wants to say that a char­ac­ter reads he doesn’t tell us what she reads, but what she wears when she reads. Guter­son cir­cles round his char­ac­ters, fill­ing his sto­ries with count­less neu­tral de­tails, usu­ally post­pon­ing or omit­ting the cru­cial one, un­til all you re­ally know about them is how des­per­ately sad and lonely they are.

Prob­lems with Peo­ple is an un­even col­lec­tion. The three best sto­ries are set in the north-west that Guter­son knows so well. They are sad, poignant sto­ries where noth­ing much seems to hap­pen then, sud­denly, right at the end, they change gear.

The reader pulls up short and re­alises that all the stuff about lens clean­ers, wash­ing ma­chines and dog walk­ers was just set­ting us up for some big ques­tions about life.

Who’s there for us when we die? How do we escape from loneliness? The best sto­ries here are pow­er­ful and deeply mov­ing. David Her­man is the JC’s chief fic­tion re­viewer

PHOTO: AP

David Guter­son: best sto­ries are pow­er­ful and deeply mov­ing

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