‘The paths of love,” writes Joan Silber, “are long and complicated.” In “Fools,” her latest collection of short fiction, Silber invites readers to meander along those paths, through six interconnected stories that span a century, as her characters search for personal peace in the midst of a turbulent world.
Inequalities are at the core of the conflicts that Silber examines in “Fools”; not just economic inequalities — though there are those, too — but also ones of love, of faith, and of the self. Her characters are often so caught up with how they think the world should be that they get tripped up by how it really is. In the book’s epigraph, Silber quotes Gandhi as saying, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” It’s an elegant formula, and each of these stories show how, despite our best efforts, it can be hard to make it all add up.
The title story is narrated by Vera, a Greenwich Village anarchist who meets her husband while protesting the prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s. Together, they fall in with a gossipy assortment of radicals (including a young Dorothy Day) who flirt with one another and struggle to reconcile their fight against the “unrelenting malice” of government with their desire for all the trappings of domestic happiness. In “Two Opinions,” Vera’s daughter Louise tries to walk a fine line between respecting her parents’ seemingly impractical antiwar idealism while adopting a more pragmatic public persona so she can fit in better during the Second World War. “It’s okay to have two opinions,” Vera warns, “if all you have to do is have an opinion.”
The book’s most beautiful story, “Going Too Far,” begins with a romance forged amid the New Age mysticism of 1970s California. Gerard and Adinah grow together, grow up, and grow apart, as he begins to finally find fulfillment in his career and she follows her religious calling to become a convert to Islam. Years after their separation, Gerard finds himself in the awkward position of having to grant her permission to go on the Hajj, as he is still her legal husband. Though she is the pilgrim, he has the epiphany when he sees TV news footage of her filing past the Kaaba. “I had the oddest feeling then,” he says, “I was entirely glad that I’d known Adinah. . . . As if we were parts of the same body, as married couples dream of being.”
Silber deftly constructs whole, fully realized lives in just a few pages, and her use of first-person narratives gives these stories an intimate, confessional feeling, as if you’ve struck up a conversation with a particularly talkative stranger looking to get something off their chest. Her writing is comfortable, casual, and deeply engaging.
Though each story has something important to say on its own, one must step back and take the book as a whole for Silber’s theme to emerge. The links between the stories are not just convenience or a contrivance. With brief nods to the Catholic Worker movement and Occupy Wall Street, Silber indicates that our personal happiness is intertwined with a broader social responsibility — that we are all in this together. It’s a connection that Vera makes almost by accident, when she finds herself behaving out of character to ingratiate herself with a man she has a crush on. “It fit with none of what I believe or leaned on. Like not being deluded. Like the great question anarchists asked the world: Can’t you do better than that?” All we can do is try.