California Literary Review

You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr

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January 6th, 2010 at 4:01 pm

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You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr
You or Someone Like You
by Chandler Burr
Ecco, 336 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Approaching Understanding

When your main character is a self-professed outsider and other characters describe her as icy and aloof, you must expect readers to have a hard time entering your story. Anne Rosenbaum, the protagonist of Chandler Burr’s debut novel, You or Someone Like You, is just such an outsider, and finding your way into her mind and her world can be tricky at first. She says of herself, “I am not in- nor out-group. I am always myself.” This type of prickly refusal to be labeled is hard to approach. I’m reminded of my difficult first reading of A Confederacy of Dunces. For very different reasons, but with similar results, the personality of Ignatius P. Reilly was at first so emotionally distant that I had to abandon the book multiple times before I got through it. However, somewhere past the first chapter, something magical happened. It was as if I had been suddenly bestowed with the pass key—perhaps it was a Paradise hot dog—to his reality. Suddenly, the novel opened wide, and I was in his world.

A similar phenomenon happens about a third of the way into You or Someone Like You. Anne’s story actually begins near the end, in a dark bedroom where her husband decides to leave her. Moving back in time, we learn the story of how they came to meet, fall in love, and start a family. At the same time, we learn the story of Anne’s successful, yet short-lived book club for the Hollywood elite. But there, in that dark bedroom, as Anne discusses Auden while Howard breaks up with her, a reader feels, well, in the dark:

As he packs, he begins to speak about having left an island long ago and wandering in the wilderness but the little island never forgot him, about a home that he betrayed, about a man in exile (in exile? I ask; in exile from what, Howard? but he doesn’t stop)

We know that something happened to their son, Sam, during a trip to Jerusalem, and that that event changed Howard in some sense. But we don’t know what happened, or even who Howard was before. We must, therefore, put our faith in Anne that she will reveal all in her own time.

And she does give us clues along the way as to how her story should be read. Early on in her account of the book club’s beginnings, she remembers saying this to J.J. Abrams and his assistant:

Half of any book, I say, is just a mirror in which you do or do not see yourself. But, and this is just my opinion, the best readers try to fit themselves into the writer’s mind rather than the reverse. Take a step toward your authors, and they will repay you twofold.

And dutifully, I did, despite the fact that I bristled at the all-too-easy inclusion of names like J.J. Abrams, a sort of get-out-of-characterizing-free card which is, unfortunately for the book, as short-lived as the person’s fame. Yes, even despite indulging in the desire to name-drop, it turned out that Anne was right.

But before we learn about Anne’s relationship with her husband, we learn about her relationship with books, and therein lies the key to this world. For an overeducated ex-British housewife stuck in a world of flash and gaudiness, books are more real that Hollywood, more dependable than a movie star, and more substantial than a Paul Thomas Anderson flick. What’s more, her thoughts on literature reveal truths about herself. She says of George Bernard Shaw that he “showed the adoption and mastery of the system—culture, which is simply a system, its accent being merely the face it presents—and portrayed that as the key to all the wealth and power of the world,” and we sense that she is talking about her experience as a foreigner in Los Angeles, and her own inability, or refusal, to participate fully in that particular culture. Similarly, she describes the coarse expletive-laden text of Mamet as “elitist language…in that it is presented, it is calibrated…It is, in fact, drowning in rules.” Herein, we read Anne’s own definition of art: language that is laden by rules, and which is completely different than real life.

But when real life becomes too restricted by rules, whether religious or cultural, Anne reacts. Constantly identifying with and reaching out to outsiders—the Latino gardener whose car accident she witnesses, the African-American cook she sends to culinary school, her own son, Sam, ostracized by an orthodox religion—Anne struggles with her husband’s returning faith in Judaism and his ensuing decision to leave. Here, Judaism is, in Anne’s eyes, a true tribe, in that it locks out all who do not belong (to Anne, this means racially). Anne is unable to understand her husband’s desire to return to what she describes as an “ideology of racial purity and superiority of one group of people over all others.”

And when he falls silent, she uses the book club to speak to him. Discussing Ulysses, Anne insists, “I am saying that as far as a god would be concerned, all of us are human. I am saying what James Joyce said: A nation is the same people living in the same place. Or else living in different places. And if we choose to be—if we choose—we are the same people.” That he finally receives her message is a testament to her own understanding of the culture in which she chooses to live.

The religious and cultural tensions present in this book, while controversial, are always handled with grace and candor, perhaps because, as Burr writes in an author’s note, the recounting of Sam Rosenbaum’s ousting from a Jewish temple is his own. Despite such a strong identification with the son’s character, Burr chose to write Anne’s story instead, and I am grateful. Burr’s embodiment of Anne’s personality on the page is ultimately exquisite, despite its initial awkwardness. His manipulation of language, the rhythm he creates, is elegant even when it is colloquial, and as quotable as the literature it discusses. Anne (or is it Burr?) says near the end of the novel,

One can arrive at a certain point, and turn around and look back, and see differently, and with a strange, disconcerting clarity, all the things that have come before. Things clicking into place. Clarity, it seems to me, is supposed not to be discomforting. But.

In the end, things do click satisfyingly into place. Returning to that shadowy bedroom at the beginning of the novel, we suddenly understand Howard’s mention of an island, Anne’s insistence on Auden. This moment is that type of magic only found in literature. The slow reveal of Anne’s story is well worth the steps I took towards her.

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