Review by John Madera
Dear Michael Kimball,
Strangely, instead of writing “Reviewed by John Madera” above, I wrote: “Reviewed by Michael Kimball.” I have, as you can see, already fixed the mistake. I’m not sure why I initially wrote “Reviewed by Michael Kimball.” It wasn’t a conscious thing, something I deliberated over. I wasn’t thinking of using some kind of Borgesian conceit or metafictional trick. It just happened that way. I also didn’t know that I was going to write a letter to you, hadn’t planned it, until after I had typed out some of my favorite passages from your book, most of which I’ve since meshed within this letter to you. I’ve had to cut some quotes as editors often want to have only a few demonstrative pieces from any book. Plus, it’s always important to be mindful that repeatedly pulling quotes from a book and then explicating it may prove wearisome to the reader. So I’m afraid that some of them didn’t make it. But that shouldn’t matter since I’m writing to you about your own book, one with which you are intimately familiar, and, perhaps, even tired of at this time. So the challenge for me here is to somehow describe to you my thoughts about your book without telling you what you already know while at the same time underscoring the central themes of Dear Everybody while also detailing your obsessions and concerns for other readers of this letter. Actually, that last sentence is a nice echo of your book’s first sixteen pages where you lay out what the entire book is about. You also did that in your first book The Way the Family Got Away where in the first few pages you reveal, in a synopsized form, the book’s main plot pivots. And here, you get away with it again, getting the story out of the way right at the beginning so the book becomes something larger for the reader than just finding out what happens next.
I wanted to read and review this book after I had heard you read from it at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn for the release of Unsaid Magazine’s fourth issue. There was something in your voice, its reedy plaintiveness and urgency that got to me. It didn’t feel put on, although it had to have been. You were acting, is what I mean to say. These letters you had read were letters that you had made up after all. They weren’t from you really but from a character you had meticulously created, not out of thin air, but out of words, words woven together as intricately as any genetic code. Those letters you read are, of course, very different from this letter that I’m writing to you now. This letter is written from me (not a character that I’ve made up), to you, a real person who invented a person who wrote letters to other imaginary people, not to mention places and things (more on that later). But this isn’t something you were hiding. For those short moments I had dutifully suspended disbelief, accepted your novel’s epistolary conceit, and surrendered to the idea that there was a Jonathon Bender who, having grown up in an often cheerless household with an abusive father who would box his ears to “bring him back into the real world,” out of “Jonathon-land with his Jonathon-thoughts,” had fallen into a downward spiral, a lacuna of despair, that led to that same “black hole with teeth” that David Foster Wallace had often found himself. No, it was easy to be swayed into imagining Bender writing these letters and see him sitting in his kitchen believing that everybody he remembered was sitting there with him. I believed him, or, rather, you writing from his point of view, when he wrote:
I am sitting in my kitchen with everybody who I can remember and it is crowded in here. Everything that I can remember is falling out of my head, going down my arm, and out my fingers. I can feel it happening inside me and sometimes it hurts.
Jonathon shares that he thought that his life had been “continuous” but discovered that all he could remember were “isolated instances” he had hoped were his “defining moments.” All of this was easy to see and believe as you were reading.
However, what I found disturbing since hearing your voice reading that afternoon (your voice that breathed life, of a kind, into your character, Jonathon Bender, who writes in a precise, crystalline manner, not unlike the prose I’m used to reading from you) was that your voice wormed inside my ear. It was your voice I heard when I finally sat down to read, and finished reading in one sitting, Dear Everybody. I’m writing this letter to you with a stream of electronic white noise in the background. It’s supposed to help me find some kind of “comfort zone,” an “auditory Zen.” It’s also supposed to aid sleep, enhance privacy, block distractions, mask tinnitus, and soothe migraines. But what it doesn’t do is block the earworm of your voice, its aneurhythm, as it were, that is now perhaps, forever embedded in my brain.
So Michael, how do I get rid of your voice in my head?
Also, I found out that Luca DiPierro created a short film based on Dear Everybody. I made the mistake of watching it after I read your book and discovered that you play the part of Jonathon Bender in it. I know, we only see you from the back. But it’s you, it’s your voice. So I’m confused now. Is Jonathon Bender you? You, like most writers, are probably sick of people conflating their writing with autobiography, and so am I, but why’d you go and muddle things up by making this film? But I know it can’t be you, first of all, because even if some of these experiences were drawn from your own life, your story hardly resembles Bender’s. I also know that autobiography itself is a construct, as much a piecing together of imagined “defining moments” as any fiction. So even if you had written this book as a memoir I would have to think of it as a narrative of conscious artifice. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, or rather, our selves, and the people we supposedly know, are just as made up as the stories that are made out of thin air, or, rather, out of words. Plus, at least at the time of this writing, you’re not dead. But then again, Bender never lived. He’s a figment, a fragment, an idea. It’s funny how I need to remind myself about this fact. But with the careful, poignant portrait that you’ve rendered here, this becomes easy to forget.
What struck me about Jonathon Bender’s letters is their consistency. No matter how painful the subject, his letters remain bright, honest, winsome, and often childlike. So many people seek to find their “inner child” but for Bender that child never left, never grew up. But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, at least not entirely. While his naïveté may keep him from being able to piece himself together, and keep himself together, it does allow him to see things with such stunning clarity and to say what has gone unsaid for so long. For instance, in his first letter, he writes:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Do you ever wish that the sperm and the egg that became me wasn’t me? I’m sure that you must have been expecting someone else from all of that pleasure.
Sometimes the letters have the fantastic purity that can be found in Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darnedest Things:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Here’s the reason that I pulled the stitching out of my feather pillow and then pulled all the feathers out of it too: I thought that I was going to find a bird.
But they also often have a dark subtext:
Dear Grandma and Grandpa Winters,
Thank you for giving me the Etch-a-Sketch for my seventh birthday. I liked drawing with it better than drawing on the walls, but I always felt sick when I shook it and everything on its magic screen disappeared. It reminded me of how my dad would grab me by both of my shoulders and shake me until everything went blank inside me too.
Jonathon is a functioning depressive for most of his life but after his girlfriend breaks up with him he plunges into a dark emotional sinkhole:
Letter to his landlord:
If you hadn’t found me, then I might never have left my apartment. I was so afraid of anything outside of me. I felt as if I had cracked somewhere inside of me and even though I wrapped my arms around my legs and tried to hold on to myself, the crack kept getting taller and wider until there was an opening where you could see through me if you looked at me. Even now, I can feel that opening getting bigger inside me and pretty soon I will disappear into it.
Jonathon Bender was a broken man. Unwanted as a newborn, shaken as a toddler, smacked around as a child, Jonathon learned to hate himself, hated the way he felt and looked, and at one point he wanted “to change everything about [himself] until [he was] somebody else.” When he was running he felt as if he “could run right out of [his] own body.” Over and over again, Jonathan yearns to be different than who he thinks he is. From a letter to his mother:
I wanted to get in a car and just drive until I didn’t know where I was anymore. I had always imagined that wherever that was that nobody would know who I was, that I would give myself a new name, and that the rest of my life would somehow be different.
I haven’t mentioned another primary aspect about this book’s construction. Jonathon Bender’s letters are ordered and contextualized by his brother Robert. As his de facto literary executor, his brother, in addition to organizing Jonathon’s letters, includes excerpts from their mother’s diary, interviews with their father, excerpts from Jonathon’s wife’s eulogy, as well as newspaper clippings, encyclopedia entries, and other ephemera that help to flesh out Jonathon’s story. These additional elements counterpoint Jonathon’s perspective with examples of their father’s brusqueness, his powder-keg temper, and their mother’s various denials, complicities, fears, all the complexities of the battered wife and loving mother. It’s ironic that just like Jonathon’s many attempts in his life to understand how his family had fallen apart, his project to capture his life’s “defining moments” was doomed to failure. That his legacy was mediated by his estranged brother, not to mention your mediation Michael, as writer of every element of this book, as well as readers’ various interpretations, underscores how any story may be interpreted in innumerable ways.
Sometimes I think that the membrane between mental illness and well-being is tissue thin. How different is a writer writing from the perspective of a person who imagines that want ads, tornados, a university, a weather satellite, a street are like persons, that you can apologize to them, thank them, from a person who actually does believe that these things are people that can be addressed? Is it that a writer can slip in and out of these states with ease and with no discernible debilitating side-effects, can step away from it like you do from a costume? Dear Everybody raises a lot of questions in my mind. I don’t expect you to answer them. Nor do I think that they can ever really be answered. I think that’s one of your book’s strengths, that it unsettles, that it brings wounds to the surface, that it provokes and challenges ideas of equilibrium and insanity.
One last thing: I was upset when I discovered that my copy of the book had somebody else’s writing in it. I’m not talking about your characters’ words, which are all your words anyway, but someone’s ballpoint pen notes and underlinings. It was the one thing that turned off your voice in my head while I read. So I wondered if that’s the trick to getting rid of the earworm. If I were to scribble my own notes in the margins of Dear Everybody would your voice then be dammed up? Well, I didn’t try since I can’t bear the idea of writing in a book. It’s almost like why I’ve never considered getting a tattoo. It’s too permanent.
About the reviewer:
John Madera edits the forum Big Other and journal The Chapbook Review. He is published widely online and most recently in The Collagist, Flatmancrooked, and The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature. His fiction is forthcoming in Opium Magazine and Corduroy Mountain. He is editing a collection of essays on the craft of writing ( Publishing Genius Press, 2010).