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  • Maw of the Eternal
  • Daniel S. Libman (bio)
Us. Michael Kimball. Tyrant Books. 184 pages; paper, $14.95.

The novel Us by Michael Kimball begins with five pages of praise for the writing of Michael Kimball, divided evenly between encomiums for the book at hand and "Michael Kimball's Other Novels." Media organs as diverse as La Razón of Mexico, El País of Spain, and Time Out London of England weigh in to tell us that the book is "[p]owerful and moving" and "[a] monument to love," "tender and poignant," and that the book will "make even the most hard-hearted of readers shed a tear."

Published originally in 2005 and appearing in America for the first time under the Tyrant Books imprint, Us is more meditation than novel: the death of one woman, a wife and grandmother to various voices in the book, ruminated on quietly through 184 short pages. The book can be read in "one subway ride" we are told via another blurb in the press materials, and will cause readers to "convulse with sobs." The book is divided into seven uneven sections. Section 1, for example, contains sixty-nine pages, while section 2 just ten. Each section is made up of short chapters with titles nearly as long as the chapters themselves, "The Dying Woman Who Looked Smaller and Older Than My Wife," and "Some of the Things that She Couldn't Do Anymore," and "How I Couldn't Take Any of My Funeral Clothes Off."

The book is narrated by three distinct voices. The most significant voice is the bereaved husband who narrates at times with a child's bewildered voice at the frightening things happening around him in the ambulance or at the funeral home. "The doctor said something else and the nurse did too. I couldn't hear them anymore, but I nodded at them both. I didn't say anything more. I kept looking at my wife." The second voice is that of a grandchild who discusses (in bold font) both the death of his grandmother, who is the wife of the first voice, as well as the future death of his grandfather, who is the original narrator. "My Grandfather Oliver said that his heart hurt. We thought that it was my grandmother who he was talking about and it probably was, but it was also that his physical heart, the muscle in his chest, hurt." The final voice is that of the dead woman, narrating her experience in italics, even after she is dead. "Thank you for giving them the sweater for me to wear and for tucking the care label in for me. I didn't want you to stop looking at me or holding onto my hand. I didn't want them to close the casket."

The struggle to understand or at least to get some kind of handle on death is probably one of the primary impetuses to create literature, and such writings have been the cornerstone of the cannon from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Mary Shelley to Joan Didion. Kimball does a fine job of describing the small moments of someone grieving and the way the bereaved uses these moments to make sense of the changing world. The husband observes bananas he purchased just before his wife got sick: "They had brown age spots on them and little flies flying around them, but I couldn't throw any of that rotten food away. I didn't want my wife to die." The repetitive use of the phrase "my wife," as in my wife was sick, and my wife was still alive, and my wife was sleeping, does a nice job reinforcing the idea that for Grandfather Oliver, his wife really is just a part of himself. "I looked smaller and older too," he observes in one of the few moments of self-reflection. This is of course the bittersweet payoff any longtime couple hopes for: when we die we are with our other half, and that person experiences the crippling, endless mourning we feel we are owed for staying together.

The rest of Us isn't quite as...


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