It’s not often I come across a novel where my opinion of that book transforms so much over the course of reading it. By and large, I abide by the fifty page rule. If I’m not getting much out of the book by that point I put it aside. Yet some novels only reveal their logic and reasoning as the story becomes fully formed. I felt this way about Colm Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn” especially. It’s beautifully written, but I didn’t really see the point until towards the end when I was suddenly absolutely gripped and realized what a brilliant book it is. “After the Parade” begins with an arresting and original premise. As the book opens we meet a man in his early forties named Aaron leaving his partner Walter, an older man that he’s been in a relationship with for over twenty years. Aaron embarks from this point on a journey of self discovery into reconciling his own past and finding the strength to fearlessly create a different kind of future for himself.

Lori Ostlund is an engaging writer who creates lively, complex and deeply-sympathetic characters. More than anything, this is a book dedicated to outsiders. It pays tribute and memorializes the struggle of people who feel ostracized from mainstream society because they are different or, as one character perceives them, a “band of misfits.” There are characters who are overweight, queer, Jewish, stricken with long-term illnesses and foreign students learning English as a second language. But the novel doesn’t portray these characters in a way that is only interested in serving the plot. They are written as fully-rounded people who possess their own flaws and make their own mistakes. It also skilfully shows the way projections about people impact an individual’s own psychology about the way they see themselves: “Once people thought they knew you, it was almost impossible to change their minds, which meant that it was almost impossible to change yourself.” One of the most compelling characters and the person that changes the most is Aaron’s mother Dolores who seems at first to be rather meek housewife living under an abusive patriarchal figure, but who develops into a deeply complex, conflicted and compelling individual. I was driven to read more of this book because I found the characters so engaging.  

A vibrant and forceful character called Clarence keeps the spines of all his books turned inward. I tried this with my own shelf. The effect is unsettling.

A vibrant and forceful character called Clarence keeps the spines of all his books turned inward. I tried this with my own shelf. The effect is unsettling.

What I found difficult about the process of reading this novel were the abrupt time shifts which occur so frequently throughout. Scenes move back and forth between the present, past and many points in between. Going back to Aaron’s earliest childhood the reader learns in pieces about traumatic events which divided his family and led him to form a relationship with Walter. It can be somewhat confusing to travel in your imagination over these constantly shifting landscapes in time. It made me long for a linear story about Aaron’s life and wonder why Ostlund didn’t compose the novel this way. It’s only later on in the novel that Aaron’s changing personality shows why these memories of the past are spread throughout the narrative. The past informs the present in some important ways so it can’t be composed in a straight line. The significance around events at the beginning take on a deeper, more nuanced meaning once the reader understands the way he eventually developed into a man who abandons a loving, supportive relationship. The way this novel is composed makes a bigger statement about individual responsibility and survival than if it had been written as a straightforward coming of age story.  

I won’t deny that part of what drew me to this novel was the personal connection I felt with its protagonist. Being a man in my late thirties, it’s easy for me to relate to Aaron. He’s at a point in his life where he feels like a full adult and independent from his experiences growing up, yet he still finds himself haunted by his upbringing and curious about how the repercussions of certain events still influence his current behaviour. However, I don’t think you need to have such personal parallels with Aaron to get just as much as I did out of this novel. It shows how we often like to blame others for the situation we’re in. At one point a character confronts Aaron stating “You wanted Walter to be wrong so you didn’t have to be, but there isn’t always one person who’s right and another who’s wrong. Sometimes – usually – it’s not that easy.” “After the Parade” demonstrates through its powerful story the way individuals grapple with the grey areas of life. Like all the characters in this heartfelt novel, we must negotiate with ourselves on a daily basis about how much we’re willing to compromise and whether we have the strength to fully face an uncertain future without fear.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLori Ostlund
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Some short story collections are made up of disparate pieces of fiction which authors have written over time and gathered together. Such was the case with Rose Tremain’s book “The American Lover” published last year. When I was at a reading Tremain gave I asked the question of how she chose what stories to include and how to order them; I was shocked to be told that this was mostly her editor’s work and she had little to do with it. It felt to me the movement from the beginning to end of the book took the reader on a distinct emotional journey. Clever editor.

Other short story collections are put together with a particular theme in mind or interrelate in ways which directly inform each other. It feels like “The State We’re In” is firmly a part of this later methodology, although I have no insight into how Ann Beattie composed this collection. The stories within form an arc of experience for the character of Jocelyn who appears throughout several (including the opening and closing story.) She’s been sent to stay with an aunt and uncle in Maine while attending summer school where she’s given the task of writing a story/essay using elements of magical realism. Jocelyn dreads writing this assignment, but by the book’s end she’s found a strategy to compose it. Yet, we’re made to wonder what the mechanism of story-telling means and how the telling interacts with living. In between we’re given the stories of distinctive personalities mostly set in Maine which include a collection of voices full of neighbouring gossip and local struggles. Jocelyn feels that “real life – you couldn’t write.” But that’s just what Beattie goes on to do.

There is a sense of being suspended in a physical place, but also in an emotional state. Some characters are established and content like a 77 year old woman who writes poetry, but it’s the accomplishments in her life which provide a counterpoint to poets past. Other characters are extremely anxious like a woman whose been asked to provide her back garden for a friend’s wedding when she despises the groom. Still others are trapped in an insolvable emotional mess like the character Moira in ‘Road Movie’ who is the lover of a married man. The configuration of their arrangement won’t change and the fact they are caught enacting clichés doesn’t make the emotional stress of the situation any less painful. This self-conscious awareness shown throughout the stories demonstrates how people can continuously narrate their lives while being unable to prevent themselves from becoming characters within them.

With my father in front of my childhood home during a typically snowy Maine winter

With my father in front of my childhood home during a typically snowy Maine winter

In some ways I felt a lot of the details in these stories washing over me as if I were listening to a gossipy neighbour I met in supermarket who won’t stop talking. Tales of terminal illness or a boy’s suicide attempt might come surprisingly in the middle of a speculations about what to have for dinner. There are details which surprise and delight, but I frequently wondered why am I being told this? It’s observed at one point that “The whole world’s full of stories. I never doubted that. Every writer will tell you the same thing: it’s next to impossible to find the inevitable story, because so many needles appear in so many haystacks. Most writers spend their entire careers – those who are lucky enough to have them – considering endless piles of hay praying, just praying that needle will prick their finger.” The experience of reading this collection is like doing this sort of sifting. But I did feel like I was startled to attention several times because sometimes a point of view struck me as so disarmingly true it was like being pierced.

I can’t help having a personal connection to this book since it is set in Maine and that is actually the state I grew up in. Many of the characters felt very familiar and it’s a social landscape I really recognized. In many ways, Maine is a very insulated place which lives by its own rules separate from the rest of the country. But at the same time it reflects the country where longstanding poverty uncomfortably rests against a small section of affluence. Beattie excellently captures the flavour of Maine with all its idiosyncrasies from pie making to barn auctions. This is a quietly unsettling and beautiful book of stories which is probably best read in order from start to finish.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnn Beattie
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