REVIEW: US by Michael Kimball
by Michael Kimball
Michael Kimball’s new novel Us is a sort of paradox. It is both a heart-wrenching meditation on loss and a quick read. One can get through these pages, filled with devastatingly simple reflections on life and death, in only a few hours. This, however, is not a slight to the book; Kimball wonderfully balances gravity with brevity. That he can pack such an emotional experience into such a small space speaks to his talents, both as a mature authority on relationships and as a craftsman of tight, effective prose. This is why Us is so highly recommendable — even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s at least over pretty quickly. And it’s doubtful that even the most nit-picky of literary aficionados will be unmoved by this read.
The premise is a common yet emotionally trying experience: being the last to die in a marriage, the one who must cope with the loss of his/her beloved. In Us, the husband survives his wife, who has had a seizure and then fallen victim to a coma. We are mostly given his perspective, which amounts to the categorical detailing of virtually every action involved in his wife’s slow preparation for death, everything from calling the ambulance to choosing a casket. The tone, as you may have guessed, is unflinchingly somber. Even the simplest of actions, like watching his wife sleep, are sweet and sad, deep in a tenderly pure fashion. Each moment the husband gets to share with his wife becomes a beautiful extension of their time together on earth.
The husband’s narrative style, which consists of plain, unadorned sentences, often leaves the reader absolutely floored. While he waits at his comatose wife’s bedside, the doctor tells the husband to go home and bring a change of clothes for her. He fears leaving, not only because she might die in his absence, but more so because he feels, quote, “as if I were somehow keeping my wife alive by being there with her.” At moments like these — and there are plenty — even the steeliest of readers may be brought to tears. Kimball shows us the seamless gradation between helplessness and hopefulness that sustains a lover in times of immense trial.
Sometimes, however, the strings of simple sentences are a slog to get through. “I tried to drive home, but I couldn’t;” “I kept falling asleep;” “I kept pulling over to the curb to sleep,” etc. So begins a typical paragraph in Us. Though this style has both logistical and aesthetic precedents, one may wonder what this novel would be like if Kimball provided more stylistic variety, or even syntactic variety, for that matter. It is a breath of fresh air, for example, when a sentence opens with “so.”
The reader learns the logistics behind the husband’s narrative style through the intrusion of the grandson as a second narrator. But he narrates in the same manner. Perhaps it is an homage to his dear grandfather, but it feels more like a missed opportunity for some much-needed variety. Even the third narrator, the most ethereal and chilling in the novel, speaks in sentences that read like a tutorial to the English language: subject, followed by verb, followed by direct/indirect objects. It is only a flaw because it clashes with the novel’s otherwise speedy pace.
But it is hard to criticize Us too harshly on these grounds because the style has profound aesthetic effects. As the novel progresses, the reader begins to realize what an incredible burden, physically and emotionally, it is for the husband to take care of a wife who is slowly dying. But it never seems like a burden because Kimball foregoes literary flare in favor of minimal gravitas. By making the husband’s actions the vehicle for his narrative, Kimball classifies true love as just that: an action. Love is not a feeling, though it certainly starts that way. Love, for those who bear it out to the dark ends of death, is simply being there. It is the undeniable urge to share the same time and space as the beloved. In the end, it is simply that two people are together, that they cease to be individuals and become “them,” or, from the first person, “us.”
–Stephen Spencer lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has an M.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College and writes creatively in his spare time.