There’s a handful of authors who are particularly adept at reading their own work: T.C. Boyle and Will Self are two who have famously made their bookstore appearances much better than the typical stilted snoozefest. Of course, a bookstore reading offers a writer’s admirers the chance to see what he or she is like in person, and to get copies of the author’s books signed, which seems to make up for the fact that most writers are not actors and not especially good at performing their own fiction.
Audiobooks don’t provide the same thrill as meeting in the flesh, but they have their own kind of intimacy, and there are times when an audiobook read by its author gives a finer sense of what the work means than a professional actor could. This is the case with Joan Silber, whose short-story collections tend to be linked by recurring characters or places and whose work is delicate but not mild, exquisite yet also robust. What makes Silber’s collections more than just an assemblage of miscellaneous short works is her interest in an Eastern-tinged sense of the recurrence of fate and history.
Silber reads the audio version of her most recent book, “Fools,” herself, and it’s immediately clear that she’s no actor. The characters who narrate the occasional first-person stories and the main characters of those narrated in the third-person are women and men, white and black, straight and gay, and her voice remains more or less the same regardless. It’s possible to imagine a more obviously vivid audiobook in which different actors were chosen to perform each story, but I found I would rather have Silber’s reading instead.
That’s because a Joan Silber collection is always more than the sum of its parts. What makes these books most moving for me are the filaments that connect the stories and the sense that they all the product of a single consciousness who is making a point, in a roundabout manner, as if by accretion, that cannot be explored in any other fashion. The characters in “Fools” are all connected in various ways to a group of anarchists, depicted in the first story, living in Greenwich Village in the 1920s. They’re friends of Dorothy Day, a writer and activist who converted to Catholicism and founded a famous newspaper, the Catholic Worker.
All of the characters in the subsequent stories are children of Day’s old friends, or someone who once worked for those old friends or even, in one case, a man who reads the memoirs of a member of the group and thinks it would make a good movie. Each of them also wrestles with spiritual longing and social conscience, two urges that prove difficult to balance even when they seem to complement each other. Day, by implication, is the one figure who made the two pieces fit.
Silber’s faint New Jersey accent and serene pacing don’t always fit the story at hand, but they fit the book overall, and that’s what matters here. Her fiction is always meticulous executed, despite how casual is sometimes sounds, and there’s never one of those moments when you feel like muttering, as the actor gets an intonation wrong, “No, no, that’s not what she meant!” The cumulative effect of Silber’s collections is what gives them their power, and this is a performance that never loses the thread.
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