Michael Kimball - I am sitting in my kitchen with everybody who I can remember and it is crowded in here

Michael Kimball, Dear Everybody (Alma Books, 2008)

«There are two books I can remember that ever made me physically cry. There were the rape scenes in Saramago’s Blindness, and there was nearly every chapter of Michael Kimball’s How Much of Us There Was. While the first hurt because it was so brutal, Kimball’s was a softer kind of invocation - as I read it in a bathtub, I could not shake the feeling of being held, as if somehow the words had interlaced my skin. This is the essence of the magic Michael Kimball holds - his sentences come on so taut, so right there, and yet somehow so calming, it's as if you are being visited by some lighted presence.

Over the last 8 years, Michael Kimball has released three book-length works of fiction, starting in 2000 with The Way the Family Got Away, followed in 2005 by the How Much of Us There Was and now, upon this end of summer 2008, his newest, Dear Everybody. With each, Kimball managed to completely reinvent his storytelling with a Stanley Crawford kind of scope, based at its essence around Kimball’s syllable-perfect syntax and massive sentences. Each book, like each of Kimball’s lines, manages to really do something that so many books seem to have forgotten how to do--say something, say it wholly new, say it in a way that will not be said so well again. Which is why right now is a time for celebration.

Dear Everybody tells the story of a suicide in letters, a weatherman gone lost in his own exasperation, writing to seemingly every person he’s ever known, to give them something to remember. The narrative, rendered in brief fragments culled from those letters and interspersed with the intended recipient’s reactions as well as other strange apocrypha, follows Bender up from his birth through middle childhood among a tearing family, among schoolmates who would never get him right, into later years of college with the awkward arc of women, sex and lack of, peculiar job arrangements, etc. Bender writes to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny. He writes to what seems like every woman he ever touched (or wanted to touch, or thought about). In the surrounding documentation, culled from the postmortem go-through of Bender’s things by his brother, we are exposed to the sadness not by wallowing, but by the subtle - Bender’s newsclippings of mass death, his crossed out to-do lists, his catalog of shortcomings. The collaged passages create a strand of locks so long that there’s barely time to blink, and yet you would not blink even if you could, the book moves so right and quick.

It is through the moment-to-moment minutiae of the novel, the synchronicity and attention to detail in Kimball’s razor phrasings, by which the hardest pins are poked. Kimball doesn’t need pages and pages to crush you. He needs maybe three lines, and so this novel, then, is like a series of small incisions, one after another, some meant to tickle, some to burn, some to open up the brain with laughter in the lighter moments, the sudden gulps of air among the wake. There’s no room for breathing in Dear Everybody, except for where Kimball allows it, nothing in each paragraph but blood, carried in sentences so lean the only way to describe them is to reiterate:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I woke up screaming that one time because of all that eye gunk holding my eyelashes and eyelids together. I couldn’t open my eyes up. I thought that I had gone blind.

These kind of spare evocations, stated evenly, even in the face of great sadness, are one of the keys to Kimball’s prowess. There is little hysteria in the horror, there is only the pacing, as from someone truly gone, which makes Dear Everybody’s tone so effective and even refreshing (even in the mind of suicide), and, ultimately, a great delight. Kimball renders his characters’ minds with such close-knit poise that it’s easy to forget you are reading, that you have eyes. The overall effect is somewhat like the language of an observant alien or child, a presence leading you through its disconnection to show you what it learned.

In the end, Kimball’s Dear Everybody is a book both intricate and new, painful and engaging, tapping on the clearest rendering of what is human, on the importance of the rhythm of each word. Dear Everybody is so many things - a collage, a hypnosis, an invention, a thing of awe, perhaps a warning - a work of new that will no doubt linger in your mind and in your stomach and in your aging skin for quite some time.» - Blake Butler

«Strangely, instead of writing “Reviewed by John Madera” above, I wrote: “Reviewed by Michael Kimball.” I have, as you can see, already fixed the mistake. I’m not sure why I initially wrote “Reviewed by Michael Kimball.” It wasn’t a conscious thing, something I deliberated over. I wasn’t thinking of using some kind of Borgesian conceit or metafictional trick. It just happened that way. I also didn’t know that I was going to write a letter to you, hadn’t planned it, until after I had typed out some of my favorite passages from your book, most of which I’ve since meshed within this letter to you. I’ve had to cut some quotes as editors often want to have only a few demonstrative pieces from any book. Plus, it’s always important to be mindful that repeatedly pulling quotes from a book and then explicating it may prove wearisome to the reader. So I’m afraid that some of them didn’t make it. But that shouldn’t matter since I’m writing to you about your own book, one with which you are intimately familiar, and, perhaps, even tired of at this time. So the challenge for me here is to somehow describe to you my thoughts about your book without telling you what you already know while at the same time underscoring the central themes of Dear Everybody while also detailing your obsessions and concerns for other readers of this letter. Actually, that last sentence is a nice echo of your book’s first sixteen pages where you lay out what the entire book is about. You also did that in your first book The Way the Family Got Away where in the first few pages you reveal, in a synopsized form, the book’s main plot pivots. And here, you get away with it again, getting the story out of the way right at the beginning so the book becomes something larger for the reader than just finding out what happens next.

I wanted to read and review this book after I had heard you read from it at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn for the release of Unsaid Magazine’s fourth issue. There was something in your voice, its reedy plaintiveness and urgency that got to me. It didn’t feel put on, although it had to have been. You were acting, is what I mean to say. These letters you had read were letters that you had made up after all. They weren’t from you really but from a character you had meticulously created, not out of thin air, but out of words, words woven together as intricately as any genetic code. Those letters you read are, of course, very different from this letter that I’m writing to you now. This letter is written from me (not a character that I’ve made up), to you, a real person who invented a person who wrote letters to other imaginary people, not to mention places and things (more on that later). But this isn’t something you were hiding. For those short moments I had dutifully suspended disbelief, accepted your novel’s epistolary conceit, and surrendered to the idea that there was a Jonathon Bender who, having grown up in an often cheerless household with an abusive father who would box his ears to “bring him back into the real world,” out of “Jonathon-land with his Jonathon-thoughts,” had fallen into a downward spiral, a lacuna of despair, that led to that same “black hole with teeth” that David Foster Wallace had often found himself. No, it was easy to be swayed into imagining Bender writing these letters and see him sitting in his kitchen believing that everybody he remembered was sitting there with him. I believed him, or, rather, you writing from his point of view, when he wrote:

I am sitting in my kitchen with everybody who I can remember and it is crowded in here. Everything that I can remember is falling out of my head, going down my arm, and out my fingers. I can feel it happening inside me and sometimes it hurts.

Jonathon shares that he thought that his life had been “continuous” but discovered that all he could remember were “isolated instances” he had hoped were his “defining moments.” All of this was easy to see and believe as you were reading.

However, what I found disturbing since hearing your voice reading that afternoon (your voice that breathed life, of a kind, into your character, Jonathon Bender, who writes in a precise, crystalline manner, not unlike the prose I’m used to reading from you) was that your voice wormed inside my ear. It was your voice I heard when I finally sat down to read, and finished reading in one sitting, Dear Everybody. I’m writing this letter to you with a stream of electronic white noise in the background. It’s supposed to help me find some kind of “comfort zone,” an “auditory Zen.” It’s also supposed to aid sleep, enhance privacy, block distractions, mask tinnitus, and soothe migraines. But what it doesn’t do is block the earworm of your voice, its aneurhythm, as it were, that is now perhaps, forever embedded in my brain.

So Michael, how do I get rid of your voice in my head?

Also, I found out that Luca DiPierro created a short film based on Dear Everybody. I made the mistake of watching it after I read your book and discovered that you play the part of Jonathon Bender in it. I know, we only see you from the back. But it’s you, it’s your voice. So I’m confused now. Is Jonathon Bender you? You, like most writers, are probably sick of people conflating their writing with autobiography, and so am I, but why’d you go and muddle things up by making this film? But I know it can’t be you, first of all, because even if some of these experiences were drawn from your own life, your story hardly resembles Bender’s. I also know that autobiography itself is a construct, as much a piecing together of imagined “defining moments” as any fiction. So even if you had written this book as a memoir I would have to think of it as a narrative of conscious artifice. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, or rather, our selves, and the people we supposedly know, are just as made up as the stories that are made out of thin air, or, rather, out of words. Plus, at least at the time of this writing, you’re not dead. But then again, Bender never lived. He’s a figment, a fragment, an idea. It’s funny how I need to remind myself about this fact. But with the careful, poignant portrait that you’ve rendered here, this becomes easy to forget.

What struck me about Jonathon Bender’s letters is their consistency. No matter how painful the subject, his letters remain bright, honest, winsome, and often childlike. So many people seek to find their “inner child” but for Bender that child never left, never grew up. But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, at least not entirely. While his naïveté may keep him from being able to piece himself together, and keep himself together, it does allow him to see things with such stunning clarity and to say what has gone unsaid for so long. For instance, in his first letter, he writes:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Do you ever wish that the sperm and the egg that became me wasn’t me? I’m sure that you must have been expecting someone else from all of that pleasure.

Sometimes the letters have the fantastic purity that can be found in Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darnedest Things:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Here’s the reason that I pulled the stitching out of my feather pillow and then pulled all the feathers out of it too: I thought that I was going to find a bird.

But they also often have a dark subtext:

Dear Grandma and Grandpa Winters,

Thank you for giving me the Etch-a-Sketch for my seventh birthday. I liked drawing with it better than drawing on the walls, but I always felt sick when I shook it and everything on its magic screen disappeared. It reminded me of how my dad would grab me by both of my shoulders and shake me until everything went blank inside me too.

Jonathon is a functioning depressive for most of his life but after his girlfriend breaks up with him he plunges into a dark emotional sinkhole:

Letter to his landlord:

If you hadn’t found me, then I might never have left my apartment. I was so afraid of anything outside of me. I felt as if I had cracked somewhere inside of me and even though I wrapped my arms around my legs and tried to hold on to myself, the crack kept getting taller and wider until there was an opening where you could see through me if you looked at me. Even now, I can feel that opening getting bigger inside me and pretty soon I will disappear into it.

Jonathon Bender was a broken man. Unwanted as a newborn, shaken as a toddler, smacked around as a child, Jonathon learned to hate himself, hated the way he felt and looked, and at one point he wanted “to change everything about [himself] until [he was] somebody else.” When he was running he felt as if he “could run right out of [his] own body.” Over and over again, Jonathan yearns to be different than who he thinks he is. From a letter to his mother:

I wanted to get in a car and just drive until I didn’t know where I was anymore. I had always imagined that wherever that was that nobody would know who I was, that I would give myself a new name, and that the rest of my life would somehow be different.

I haven’t mentioned another primary aspect about this book’s construction. Jonathon Bender’s letters are ordered and contextualized by his brother Robert. As his de facto literary executor, his brother, in addition to organizing Jonathon’s letters, includes excerpts from their mother’s diary, interviews with their father, excerpts from Jonathon’s wife’s eulogy, as well as newspaper clippings, encyclopedia entries, and other ephemera that help to flesh out Jonathon’s story. These additional elements counterpoint Jonathon’s perspective with examples of their father’s brusqueness, his powder-keg temper, and their mother’s various denials, complicities, fears, all the complexities of the battered wife and loving mother. It’s ironic that just like Jonathon’s many attempts in his life to understand how his family had fallen apart, his project to capture his life’s “defining moments” was doomed to failure. That his legacy was mediated by his estranged brother, not to mention your mediation Michael, as writer of every element of this book, as well as readers’ various interpretations, underscores how any story may be interpreted in innumerable ways.

Sometimes I think that the membrane between mental illness and well-being is tissue thin. How different is a writer writing from the perspective of a person who imagines that want ads, tornados, a university, a weather satellite, a street are like persons, that you can apologize to them, thank them, from a person who actually does believe that these things are people that can be addressed? Is it that a writer can slip in and out of these states with ease and with no discernible debilitating side-effects, can step away from it like you do from a costume? Dear Everybody raises a lot of questions in my mind. I don’t expect you to answer them. Nor do I think that they can ever really be answered. I think that’s one of your book’s strengths, that it unsettles, that it brings wounds to the surface, that it provokes and challenges ideas of equilibrium and insanity.

One last thing: I was upset when I discovered that my copy of the book had somebody else’s writing in it. I’m not talking about your characters’ words, which are all your words anyway, but someone’s ballpoint pen notes and underlinings. It was the one thing that turned off your voice in my head while I read. So I wondered if that’s the trick to getting rid of the earworm. If I were to scribble my own notes in the margins of Dear Everybody would your voice then be dammed up? Well, I didn’t try since I can’t bear the idea of writing in a book. It’s almost like why I’ve never considered getting a tattoo. It’s too permanent.» - John Madera

«Dear Michael,

I hope you can forgive me for appropriating the epistolary form to write this review, but I wanted to tell you just how impressed I was by Dear Everybody. You have created something that I found very affecting, warm in places, tinged with affection – but my abiding sensation after finishing is one of sorrow.

I mourn not just for Jonathon Bender, whose tragic life is encapsulated within this collection of letters, written immediately before he takes his own life. Although he is the centre of this tragedy, and worthy of our grief, I also feel sorrow for his mother, whose diaries reveal the anguish of an abused wife; sorrow for his younger brother Robert, who through his commentary on the letters and his conversations with their father, earns our scorn for his inability to understand his brother even in death. Robert deserves our pity also, despite his apparent lack of empathy, because the influence of his father is all too clear in his attitudes, and in his own way his life has been just as badly affected by the nature of their childhood.

That’s not to say you’ve sent us on a total downer with this book – Jonathon’s choice of recipients for his letters as he looks back over his life includes some deeply unorthodox selections, and his gentle demeanour in the face of mental illness and domestic violence is in many ways deeply encouraging. Whether writing to his mother, his father, his ex-wife, a weather satellite, the state of Michigan or anyone else who has had an impact on his life, his perspective, viewing even his adult life with an almost childlike simplicity, can be wry and funny and sweet. I like how he is apparently unable to lie on his CV, though we never find out whether he sent it or not:

Many short-term jobs with duties that included typing, filing, making long-distance phone calls to ex-girlfriends, looking out the window, and stealing office supplies.

Your portrayal of his mental illness is not overblown, and has, for me, the ring of authenticity. Your hints at darker secrets in Jonathon’s life, crimes perpetrated by his father perhaps, deepen the tragedy. If there is a suggestion of redemption anywhere in this story, it is in the hope that Robert, deeply unsympathetic and self-centred though he appears, has, through the letters of his brother and the journey they have taken him on, arrived at a new way to address his relationship with his father and his whole childhood. His lack of commentary towards the end of the book, where extracts from Jonathon’s ex-wife’s eulogy take over, lead me to hope that his final muteness indicates some kind of epiphany has occurred. I would certainly like to think that that’s the case.

Thank you, Jonathon, for taking the trouble to write to everyone before you left a world in which you never felt truly at home. Thank you, Michael, for this wonderful book.

Yours sincerely, - Simon Appleby»

Michael Kimball, The Way the Family Got Away (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000)

"Sometimes a list will leave you listless: Cradle and other baby stuff, necklaces and other dress-up stuff, doll house and the doll people living in it, pocketwatch and pocketknife, baseball bat and baseball glove, pillows, blankets, sheets, and the other stuff that helped them sleep, locket and chain, family pictures, guns, holster belt, bullets, wedding dress, wedding ring, record player and records, silver frame with the picture of their whole family in it, suitcases, boxes, and crates, maps and their other car papers, flashlight, a pair of sunglasses, batteries, sewing kit, first-aid kit, gloves, spare tire, hubcaps, tire jack, lug wrench, backseat, rearview mirror, and some other tools that were in the trunk. Actually, this was everything a family had until they had to let all of it go, things they sold to buy some more distance, some more space, to get them further away and to keep them together, to keep them from breaking further apart. In the end they lose everything except for the “underwear and the shoes, the doll parts, [their] dirty clothes, and some other stuff that nobody else ever wanted but [them].”
Michael Kimball’s The Way the Family Got Away is about everything that disappears, like what you used to call a dream, like so much sump. Here a family of four travels cross-country away from unfathomable loss toward somewhere they hope is filled with something else, anything but the pain of that loss. They travel away from Mineola, Texas toward Gaylord, Michigan, or, as the brother says, “away from where my brother was alive once and died there and toward the miles and the everything else that was going to happen to us everywhere else we went.” The boy thinks that they stop at the homes of other families so that they “could get some of their family away from them and keep going away,” as if the idea of family is a tangible thing, that the invisible bonds that make a family a family can be traded off and then used to keep another family together, to keep them going, keep them moving.
Here are the voices of children, offering images as clear as they are clouded from inexperience, illuminated as they are shadowed by pain. The Way the Family Got Away ping-pongs between a little girl and her older brother recounting what has happened, is happening, and what might happen during their travels. The sister drifts easily between her own fantastic doll-world and people-world, where “[y]ou have to keep your doll-you with you or there won’t be a living-world for people or dolls or my little brother to live inside it anymore.” This little girl’s voice will indelibly inscribe itself on your heart as she struggles to make sense of the death of her baby brother. Fantasy and reality are the same for her, and this blurring of boundaries may be her salvation. “We make each other up anyway,” she says. “We are made up out of other people and the living-world. But we also die from each other and go back down into the ground and dirt-world after we burn and poke and break and the people goes out of us.”
Kimball suggests that families may be tethered as much by their shared history as they are by their possessions, their home, their property, treasures, keepsakes, family photos, or, more precisely, their notions of same. But what happens when all that is stripped away? What happens when a fire burns it all down to so much charcoal? When a flood washes it all away? Or, as in Kimball’s novel, what happens when a baby dies and everything gets swallowed into that yawning maw, that “black hole with teeth”? Here a boy maps out their mourning:
We got farther away by trading everything else we had left with us or inside us away to everybody else that lived in everywhere we went. We were going to empty everything out of our family and empty everything out of everybody in our family. We got emptier the farther away that we went away together. We drove away past empty places—ditches along the side of the road, houses without any windows or doors, barns without roofs, fields without any trees or anything else growing up in them. We got out to where my mother and father and brother and sister and me only had miles and towns and the everywhere that we went away to together inside us. It was this emptiness and distance in between these places and us that held our family together in America.
As readers, we often hope that the lover will return, that the reward will come, that the treasure will be found, that there will be respite, that everything will come together in the end. The Way the Family Got Away offers no such easy answers, nor any evidence of the resilience of family to overcome any obstacle, recover from any tragedy. In this short but weighty novel, Kimball offers just what the title says: this is the way the family got away. From town to town, they get farther from where they were but no closer to restoring what they had lost. They are a nameless family, a family in name only, running from their pain only to find it seeping out of them, stinking like so much stagnant water. Though the boy says, “A family needs people in it to keep going or it stops being a family,” what makes a family a family is what these children are forced to figure out for themselves since their mother and father—reduced to husks—shoulder their own guilt, simply slogging ahead to get their children to some kind of safety.
While the brother offers mainly detached accounts of their travels, providing inventories of what was sold, and how that enabled them to get to another place on their map toward Bompa’s house, the sister relates something more blisteringly imaginative, grotesque and gothic. In “How to Make a Baby Up, How to Make Me Up Into a Momma, and How Many People Any People-Family Needs to Have Living Inside It,” the brother and sister put their dead-brother’s “baby-things inside the hole inside” the sister to “make a baby up and make [her] into a Momma too.” After a series of regressive acts like some kind of makeshift play therapy, they enact their own birth:
We held my hands over my nose and mouth to hold my breath inside me and my stomach out. We pushed my stomach from behind me to make me up into more baby and bigger out. We cut me and my clothes open to get the baby out of me and blood. But our baby only came out doll-baby. It wasn’t crying or talking or eating and angel or folded up and paper or big enough either. It wasn’t alive or living. Our doll-baby was bloody with my Momma and string.
There’s something about a sad story told from a child’s perspective that makes it all the more poignant. It may be the unadorned flow of this follows that and then this happened. It may be the crystal clear imagery. It may be the guileless naïveté that misinterprets motivations and consequences. In The Way the Family Got Away, the children have a somewhat stoic perspective of the unfolding events borne from years of disenfranchisement and life’s incessant pummeling, and from mirroring their parents’ detached coping mechanisms. Kimball wants us to learn, like the little girl has learned, a new syntax of bereavement, where “you don’t only always hear everything inside your ears. Sometimes you hear some things inside your head and mouth or stomach. You feel it inside you and you can’t stop it from going inside your head.” And if you listen closely, you might just hear something you haven’t heard in a way you haven’t heard, or hear something you don’t want to hear in a way you should, or hear something you have heard in a way you have heard, but haven’t understood." - John Madera