By Micheal Kimball
Published September 1, 2008
Reviewed September 24, 2009
Unlike actors who become politicians or Disney’s tween actors with platinum-iced singing dreams, I like authors who figuratively cut off the hands that made them famous and go at it with a new pair.
What writers seem to maintain when they pack up and skip out on their genre, that these other annoying public figures don’t, is sincerity. Readers tend to see such attempts by authors as the cultivation of some new basement brew of ingenuity. The writer seems to be holding the values of literature, which consistently hail curiosity and imagination, closer to them so as to examine more shrewdly from a different angle.
In the case of Micheal Kimball, the writer of the novel “Dear Everybody,” we have a writer trading in the high-speed, downtown feel of poems for the stretching, interstate highways of a novel.
“Dear Everybody” is a collection of letters, conversations, diary entries, and encyclopedia articles that makes Jonathan Bender’s life finally come together just when it has completely dissolved. Jonathan’s suicide forces his brother, Robert, who insists that he never understood or was close to Jonathan, to create a self-portrait that Jonathan himself – crippled by depression and memories of childhood abuse at the hands of overweight, adulterous father – was only capable of seeing in blurry bits and pieces.
In the beginning of the novel, Robert remarks snidely, in brackets drawn on the bottom of the page, that he wishes Jonathan had just written one letter to “everybody.” It’s a statement that is absolutely heartbreaking in it’s dismissive tone. However, for the reader it starts off the first echo of a demand that haunted Jonathan his whole, stunted life. “Why can’t you just make things easier for all of us?”
Despite Jonathan’s mental bruises and moth-eaten social skills, it’s clear he cares deeply for those he tries to connect with. He gets painfully close to getting it right with his wife, Sara. Seeing the glass shards of those few relationships clustered together exposes the inevitable patterns of Jonathon’s behavior. Depression and dark memories were the only thing Jonathan could consistently keep around. Though the ending is, of course, defined from the beginning, the clever addition of skeptical Robert does allow the reader to hope that someone from his Jonathan’s life has finally heard him.
Kimball’s background as a poet is apparent in his ability to isolate and frame small moments of a particular character’s experience. Fine attention to detail is exercised both as an art and as a special effect, heightening and diversifying the book’s emotions at a clipped pace. You will finish this book in a day or two. It has a surprisingly strong dark humor for being about such a serious topic, his observations are keen and quirky, and he knows how to let imagery make a scene swell. It all keeps the book far away from being saccharine and sentimental.
Plus, there’s something about letters, right? Kimball’s letters seem like purgatory to me. The letter writer reaches out for the people he wants to feel close to, but only after it’s too late. He damns himself, and the reader, over and over again with each letter. He purges honest feeling and pent up regrets, but it’s an illusion of resolution. He wants nothing to do with responses and at the end of each letter: no matter how alive the prose feels, he is still dead. This writing spree has all the highs and lows of a drug binge.
I think it’s telling as well that the novel wouldn’t even make sense if the letters made up the novel by themselves. Gaps must be filled in by several other one-sided conversations. Jonathon’s mother’s diary fills in many gaps, as does Sara’s eulogy and Robert’s commentary. No one manages to speak to anyone else in this book, and the book ends up being a sad consequence of that. All of this seems like a sly jib from Kimball towards a piece of writing or an individual that fail to do anything but listen to itself speak.
Jonathan’s beautiful letters are a collection of broken wires – every one is unfinished and loss seems to be the only thing that pushed Jonathan to keep writing towards the end. Every time the reader imagines the physical presence of Jonathan, you’re supposed to see a man with his mouth clamped shut, a man who has lost control of the conversation.