There are a lot of lonely people out there, and with my collection of stories The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old coming out on Monday (you can order it directly from the publisher, Square, Small Press Distribution, and Amazon), I want to write for a moment about why I devoted an entire book to them.
Each of the twelve stories is told by an unnamed narrator, among them a high school student, an elderly widower, a woman in her twenties, a mother in her thirties, a mother going to pick up her son from the airport. But there’s nothing hip or quirky about them, just as there is very little that is hip or quirky about most of us, and none of them are granted the usual crutches given to such characters: they are not witty, they do not have a storehouse of pop culture references to call on, and there are no passages of graphic sex or violence. They are simply lonely, unmoored and adrift, and I wanted desperately to give voice to them, to their doubts and their wishes for belonging.
At the end of one story, “Unburdened”—which follows a mother through a trip to the grocery store—someone finally approaches her as a friend and wants to listen to her. The narrator says, “I search to find what I mean to say, it’s so hard, I’ve never had to say what I mean before.” And so, my lonely people are not vastly eloquent either, just as few of us really are. The importance of this realization hit me when writing the high school story, “Alone.” I had tried to write about being a lonely high schooler while actually in high school, but as I discovered later, the difference between those stories and actual journals from the time couldn’t have been more vast. The stories were immensely clear and argued, and closer to essays, while in the journals my inability to express how I was feeling was the major problem. And so the struggle and search for speech and expression became central to “Alone,” and all the other stories.
There are a lot of lonely people out there, people who want to be listened to even though they aren’t even sure what they want to say, and I have only tried to give the world twelve of them: an old man who misses his wife, another man whose wife has left him, a mother who doesn’t mean to alienate her son, a man who wishes he had had children after all, a young woman who observes a love affair she wishes that she were the object of. We deceive ourselves if we think that those people who populate cable news or social media, and who are so well-rehearsed in speaking succinctly in soundbites and quips, actually represent how we should be, let alone how we actually are. I would bet that amid our striving for “constant connection,” many of us are actually lonelier than ever. At my last job, I faced every day a sea of hundreds of cubicles, and each person’s attempt to decorate that space, or to be social or pleasant or inviting, only reinforced this impression of actual isolation.
Nearly all of the stories purposely avoid being stories, or having an arc; as much as possible I tried to avoid the usual indicators of drama: someone dying or being born, someone getting married or breaking up, or quite simply just of someone thinking about an action and actually carrying it out. There are a few exceptions: one story is about a group of children who escape the neglect of their alcoholic mother and are transformed into deer in the woods; in another, a young couple on their way to work are freed from the morning commute by being turned into swans, and flying away. And the novella which closes the book, “Bearing the Names of Many,” is a diary which describes nothing less but the end of the world, although in such a way as to make the anonymous details of all the unknown and lonely people the real substance of what is being lost.
Even perhaps the most dramatic of the stories, “Holy Dread”—the story that starts the book and which is about a young man who no longer appears to exist, having been displaced by a doppelgänger—was merely an excuse to talk about how, when I moved away from home for the first time, I no longer felt like I belonged anywhere, not at home or in this new place. I would imagine this feeling is much more common than the colorful depictions of youth shown on TV, or even in other literary fiction, where drugs and sex are plentiful, where everyone talks like an article out of Rolling Stone, and where they all have tons of friends and an immediately established identity. Because of this, I don’t even think that The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old is a book for the “rest of us”—it’s a book for nearly all of us.