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Book Review: 'Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin,' Peter Orner

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Published December 21, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Peter Orner - COURTESY OF PAWEL KRUK
  • Courtesy Of Pawel Kruk
  • Peter Orner

The subtitle of Peter Orner's 2016 book of essays Am I Alone Here? is Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live. Apparently, Orner is one of those people who never goes anywhere without a book. By his own account, he carries books he has inherited, borrowed, stolen and (sometimes) bought. He's a hunter-gatherer who finds curiosities and treasures for a pittance at used bookshops. He reads stories, novels, essays, poems and plays, and he reads for hours and hours: in parked cars, in bars and cafeterias, at picnic tables while his children are playing, and when "It's morning, early morning, and nobody in this house is awake."

In his new book, Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin, Orner portrays reading as a devotion, a refuge, and sometimes a penance for his faults and offenses, as when he vows

...to remain here in a chair in the public library in West Lebanon and read this day, this ordinary, sacred day, straight through (with a sandwich, cold coffee, and a Mars bar) in the distant hope that it might help me become a better person. I don't believe a book, any book, can do this but everything else I've tried has failed.

Orner is an English professor and director of the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. In addition to his previous essay collection, the Norwich resident has published two novels and three collections of short fiction, most recently the wonderful Maggie Brown & Others (2019), praised by a New York Times reviewer for its "roving, kaleidoscopic vision." He has also edited nonfiction books about contemporary life in Haiti and Zimbabwe, and in 2017-18 he taught at the University of Namibia as a Fulbright scholar.

Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin by Peter Orner, Catapult, 320 pages. $26. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin by Peter Orner, Catapult, 320 pages. $26.

The publisher of Still No Word From You calls it "a book for anyone for whom reading is as essential as breathing." This isn't a volume of academic literary analysis but a set of 107 untitled chapters, mini essays that pivot on autobiographical vignettes about growing up in 1980s suburban Chicago in a home "seething" with silence. Reading book after book, the young Orner discovered that literature offered vital ways to locate himself in the world.

The book moves back and forth between episodes from Orner's youth — mostly painful and some excruciating — and memories of reading and often rereading. He juxtaposes fictional characters with personages from his own life, granting them comparable importance.

Orner has a knack for first sentences, which function like musical hooks to catch your attention and draw you in:

My father's delight in taking splinters out of my foot.
Chekhov at the Dunkin' Donuts in Grantham, New Hampshire.
Mid-morning and my grandfather is sitting at his desk, his notary public stamp in his upper left-hand drawer, alongside the pornographic comic books he brought back from the war.
Leonard found her walking stick by the side of the river, but it wasn't until three weeks later that her body surfaced.

In many passages, Orner's evocation of the reading experience is startling. Narrating in a much more actively personal mode than that of most literary criticism, he depicts himself as astounded, transported, shocked. He cries out to authors ("Oh, Primo!"), cheers and berates fictional characters, and implores his own readers to pay close attention to the nuances of a tale.

As a reader himself, he is devouring and being devoured, ecstatic and unabashed, as he reacts to a woman's voice in a Bernard Malamud story:

Like a screwdriver in the eye, the rabbi's wife's dialogue here. Yes, it's hammed-up Jewish vernacular, but I used to have relatives, every Jew in America used to have relatives, who used to talk this way, as if contractions weren't invented. Yascha, I am screaming. But beyond this, isn't this the way you, too, have shouted in an extreme moment?

Orner's dives into memoir are as enjoyable as his readerly commentaries. Many of his most captivating pieces combine these modes, as in a transition where he describes the "shapeless lips" of a pawnbroker in the Malamud story as reminding him of his first job in a sporting goods store, where the owner "ate all day long."

And his celebrations of writers whom he loves kept propelling this reader to the shelves to retrieve books: fiction by Jean Rhys, Gina Berriault and Penelope Fitzgerald; hard-to-categorize texts by Eva Figes and Primo Levi; and lesser-known poems by Robert Hayden, Allen Grossman and Amy Clampitt. One of Orner's quoted excerpts led to days spent exploring the writings of Isaac Babel.

But the bits-and-pieces structure of Still No Word From You is fatiguing. In the very short stories of Maggie Brown & Others, brevity is a strength, but here the effect of very small chapters and quick jumps between subjects is choppy. The essays in Am I Alone Here? are more ample and illuminating, while several of those in the new book offer little more than name-dropping.

Stylistically, Orner's prose can be pugilistic, as if he were anticipating a dispute that might result in fisticuffs. And in some places, the first-person narrator just sounds like he's showing off his sensitivity and smartness.

Perhaps the ways in which this book seems indecisive and uneven could be blamed on editors (as could some egregious proofreading mistakes), but in the end, the author is responsible for shaping a book.

Early in Still No Word From You, Orner recalls being a young teacher: "At that time, going on and on, preaching the gospel of fiction kept me tethered, at least slightly, to the existence of other people."

In the strongest parts of his new book, Orner quiets his narrator's noisy self-regard and instead beautifully conjures the lives of other people.

From Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin

Above a laundromat in New Bedford. A crammed, creaky-floored, undusted, sneezing, wheezing, natural habitat of books. Every available space on the shelves had long since been completely stuffed, and the books were jammed three rows deep, behind one peeped another and another. Books rose in teetering piles like stalagmites. Books blocked the window, the emergency exit. The only way to move forward was to creep along narrow, winding, precarious paths. One false move and you were flattened by a stack of Balzacs. From below, steam wafted up past the windows like smoke.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Living to Read | Book review: Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin, Peter Orner"