May 2013

The necessity and foolishness of belief

By Joan Silber
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When does an idea become a conviction, love become an obsession, interest become a passion? When do we shift from engagement to foolish fixation? In the six connected stories of her new collection Fools, Joan Silber—whose 2005 linked story collection, Ideas of Heaven, was a National Book Award finalist—tackles these questions head-on, uncovering the price we pay for our beliefs, our attractions and our ideals.

Religious belief, politics and the pursuit of money are tangled up in this collection. In the opening title story, Vera, raised by Christian missionaries in India, turns to politics and finds a place in the lively bohemian and anarchist circles of Greenwich Village in the 1920s. Five decades later, in “Better,” a gay man in the midst of a breakup finds solace in a memoir of Village life written by one of Vera’s friends and in the teachings of Gandhi. The spirits of Gandhi and Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Workers), two idealistic individuals who lived out their principles, are never far from these stories.

Silber’s characters are also fools for love. Vera finds herself drawn to Forster, a member of their social circle, and is unable to hide the attraction from her husband. In “Different Opinions,” Vera’s daughter Louise remains in New York after her husband takes a job in Japan, determined to live a separate life but not willing to divorce. In “Going Too Far,” a young man, superficially attracted to dharma talks and meditation groups, marries a woman he meets at a Sufi concert and then is alienated as she is gradually drawn wholly into the practices of mystical Islam.

Each story in Fools is as satisfyingly dense as a novel, and the links between them are subtle and elegant, never forced. Silber’s characters are open to the lure of ideas, wealth and passion, even when they lead to despair—or at least uncomfortable circumstances. Though their actions may be reckless, their convictions are not. The stories sweep through time and place, but the carefully accumulated details and the characters’ vulnerabilities ground them in a way that is as authentic and foolish as life itself.

Read a Q&A with Joan Silber about Fools.

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By Joan Silber
ISBN 9780393088700

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