Pocket Review: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

illusionofseparatenessThe Illusion of Separateness
Simon Van Booy
HarperCollins, 2013

Of all the complex emotions a writer might set out to evoke from a reader over the course of a novel, surely compassion is one of the harder to coax out. People tend to flinch away from it even when an opportunity presents itself in real life—it’s an earnest kind of reaction, with no room for irony, and often the more difficult path. It’s no accident that religions invoke compassion as a stepping-stone to further enlightenment; it’s not always the easiest choice. As subjects for contemporary fiction go, it’s not particularly edgy—and certainly nothing anyone wants explained to them.

But every so often an author manages to make a good case for decency in thought and action and to entertain at the same time. Simon Van Booy’s latest novel, The Illusion of Separateness, is this kind of book. Its premise is simple: that we are, all of us, connected in ways we cannot imagine. But Van Booy also spins out a good yarn to accompany it, and the message goes down easily. I am not generally a fan of books that want to tell me something that’s good for me, but there’s also something very refreshing—in these days of the ever-prevalent dark and weird—about a novel whose subtext is: be kind; be better than you think you need to be.

Van Booy doesn’t pull out any authorial bells and whistles here. The story is built from a series of linked narratives that cross back and forth in time, told in gentle, pointed declarative sentences that are part Hemingway and part Brothers Grimm. Over the course of nearly 70 years, the lives of a seemingly random set of players cross, then weave, and eventually draw together: a solitary man who works in a California nursing home, a boy growing up in rural France in the late ’60s, a blind girl from Long Island, a young married World War II pilot, a Scottish film director living in Los Angeles, a German war refugee. Their stories are not particularly remarkable. Which is, of course, Van Booy’s point—that the fabric of the universe is comprised of small lives, and everyone is from somewhere:

The sign in the distance once read Hollywoodland. Mules hauled thick poles up the steep ravine for mounting the letters. In 1932, an actress jumped to her death from the letter H. There were old-style cars parked along the boulevards. Men wore hats and beige suits. Everybody smoked and rode horses. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald ate at lunch counters, and sat in a park near the tar pits, writing letters to his daughter, telling her not to spend so much money and to look after her mother.

Not much happens in The Illusion of Separateness, but of course everything happens. A man puts a gun in another man’s mouth and doesn’t shoot; a baby is rescued and then given away; a little boy gives pastries to the homeless men in the park behind his parents’ bakery. People are lonely everywhere, and come together for solace, and find it: no surprise there either. The pleasures in this book are twofold, I think. The first lies in Van Booy’s storytelling, for it is exactly that: a series of fables for grownups, told in a spare and gentle language. He pulls out all manner of clichés and renders them not new but ordinary, as if to say yes, well—isn’t this is why they’re clichés in the first place? His interlocking tales are brazen in their refusal of novelty, retaining a certain innocence that has nothing more to prove:

He would not have described himself as lonely, but would have admitted that something was missing. He often sat at his kitchen counter wondering what it could be, watching his dogs sleep, watching them breathe, their small hearts turning and opening like locks.

Hearts come into play a lot here—not necessarily in a sentimental capacity, though Van Booy is an unabashed romantic, but doing their jobs pushing blood around bodies, and then, often, not. This is a mild novel, but also messy in the way life is, and affectionate about it all.

And that’s the book’s second joy: that there is still, in this anxious and impatient 21st century, gratification in being reminded that kindness has its place. The book’s title and epigraph are taken from a quote by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” There’s a similar simplicity to the novel, if you’re of a mind or disposition to let it in. It’s not such a bad thing, the suggestion that we should try to remember to be nicer to each other. And not a little brave to take on in the current culture of fiction. This is a small book, and a kind one, and if it didn’t make me a better person, it certainly didn’t make me a worse one.

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