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The Lonely Voice: 'Works of the Imagination' By Gina Berriault

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Gina Berriault

Protagonist Thomas Lang is a novelist who is holed up in a hotel in the Bernese Alps to write his memoirs. But the words won’t come.

A disquietude troubles his mind. He is getting older. The all-consuming idea of facing his mortality distracts him from his writing and even, it seems, from the curiosity and compassion that used to guide his work.

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In his essay “Under All This Noise” from the book Am I Alone Here? Peter Orner contemplates becoming a reclusive writer. He says there is “something seductive about these mysterious figures who squirrel away” and that “we can imagine them toiling in a remote mountain cabin.”

Orner’s yearning to vanish is rooted in his “uneasy relationship with how theoretically connected we all are with one another now,” particularly through the “soul crushing” proclivity of over-sharing on social media.

“Inventing characters,” writes Orner, “nonexistent people, and introducing them in an already overcrowded, indifferent world is an act of faith.”

When Orner happens upon a book of poetry by Herbert Morris called What Was Lost, he finds that it is completely bereft of biographical information. No author photo, no acknowledgements. Only the poems.

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Orner settles on the one titled, “History, Weather, Loss, the Children, Georgia,” where Morris writes about a photo of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt sitting in their car in front of a group of schoolchildren who are about to serenade them. Franklin does not touch his wife in that tender moment captured just before the young children break into song, their mouths “forever in little Os” — but also Eleanor untouched by her husband — for an eternity. Orner surmises that Franklin’s failure makes the poem “an elegy for this touch that never happened.”

Readers, Orner reminds us, “want people in their most intimate unguarded moments,” like Franklin who Morris said committed a “crucial failure” in not meeting his wife’s vulnerability sitting there in the back of that open car.

We see Thomas Lang in many unguarded moments in “Works of the Imagination,” including the moment when he is awakened by his heart — by his fear that he is dying, and waits for the feeling to pass with his hand on his chest.

This story has a photograph, too. The reclusive Thomas Lang stares from his “empty notebook” at the framed images on the wall of those who climbed the mountain outside his window — and didn’t make it back down.

The images are like the stories that don’t get written, silenced by the indifference of others or, worse, our own. The indifference that would make us walk past a photo and never wonder about the inner lives of those smiling back at us. The indifference of not filling a notebook, even though we have a story to share.

“Books pursue us,” says Orner. He found Herbert Morris’ book at Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street in San Francisco and wonders what made him stop in that day and dig that book out of a bin. “And,” asks Orner, “how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, telling us things we need to hear?”

Gina Berriault answers that question and herself shows us through her stories the crucial value of seeing and hearing people, especially those who are unsuccessful and unfortunate — to look beyond the one-dimensionality of a photo or the words on a page and feel Thomas Lang’s quickening heartbeat as if it were our own.

Just as Orner found Herbert Morris’ book that day on Valencia Street, he believes that “people who need Berriault find her” in those same sorts of “acts of faith” Orner cleaves to and champions vociferously in quiet acts of reading and writing stories — his own brand of social media.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.