Simon Van Booy’s World of Ordinary Magic
Everyday magic holds a central place in “The Sadness of Beautiful Things,” a new book of short stories from Simon Van Booy, a celebrated writer who got his start writing for newspapers on the East End and is still a frequent visitor to our shores.
In this new series of vignettes, which was released by Penguin Books in October of 2018, this magic comes from many places.
It comes from the bonds of human love, from new technology, from the hidden workings of an unknowable god, from the way ideas travel through the fabric of society and from music, which is a language that all of us can speak.
The breadth of the subject matter in this compact work is surprising — from a lost child of Ireland’s Catholic orphanage system to a man dragging himself through the snow outside Albany convinced the earth is about to be flung out of orbit into the sun to an eerie little girl who survived a horrible accident involving a drone (or did she survive?) to a scrappy fighter’s surprise actions as he’s being mugged in Central Park — theses characters quickly demand your full attention, and what happens to these people is a beautiful web of storycraft.
Mr. Van Booy takes us to these places in short, declarative and highly specific sentences, which bely the complexity of the story they are telling. This is the stuff of alchemy, one of the finest arrows in his quiver of writer’s techniques.
Take this passage, from “Playing with Dolls”: “A delivery quad-copter collided with the top of a Dutch elm tree and veered up into the sky, where it clipped the blade of a yellow filter drone as it sucked the morning’s excess pollen. Both machines immediately stopped functioning and began falling to earth. Six seconds later, the delivery quad-copter hit the top of a bus and shattered, while the filter drone — about the size of a small car — smashed into the sidewalk, where one of its blades broke off and shredded a thirteen-year-old girl wearing headphones and a virtual reality mask. Then the drone pollen sac burst, and everything was covered with yellow dust.”
There is no piece titled “The Sadness of Beautiful Things” in this collection, but it’s an apt name for the pieces as a whole. Each is about something fleeting, about moments that will be quickly absorbed into our story of our pasts, embellished by memory or perhaps forgotten, like one story, about a hitchhiker who’s picked up by a barefoot insomniac woman in jogging shorts and a sport coat who takes him to the shore at Blackpool, England, where they share an all-night, half-dream infatuation before never seeing one another again.
“When he closed the door, they stared at one another through the glass, but only her outline was visible,” Mr. Van Booy writes. “It was the first of many times he would try to remember her face, the first of many times he would look for someone and not see them — search for someone whose absence defined him.”
In another story, “Not Dying,” a man stops to change a woman’s flat tire in the parking lot of a lake in Arizona and time skips ahead a decade and they are married with a growing daughter and all the memories of love to contend with at the end of the world.
Each of these two stories could have been the same story if they’d stayed at their origin. But their arcs take them to such widely divergent places that you can’t help but be convinced that chaos theory is real. Small changes in initial conditions rapidly changes the worlds of these characters.
Mr. Van Booy is the author of nine books already, three of which are works of philosophy and two of which are children’s books, and it’s clear from this collection that his thinking comes from a primal childhood place where one asks big questions and is unsatisfied with the answers.
At this juncture, many of us give up and stop asking about the hidden forces behind our everyday lives. But all children need this place, as the author well knows — he’s the founder of Writers for Children, a project which helps young people build confidence in their literary abilities. It’s the big questions that children ask that seem to be a force pulsing through “The Sadness of Beautiful Things.”
Mr. Van Booy dives right into these questions, bringing back strange answers from the deep, plunging to the depths of existance and memory and meaning again and again, each time pulling new creatures up from these depths.
That’s what makes these small works so satisfying.
It’s been a few days since I put this book down — I was attempting to savor each piece, but of course that had to come to an end.
The final piece in this collection, “The Doorman,” has surprised me with its stickiness. I can’t get it out of my head.
It’s a simple New York story of a Fifth Avenue doorman, a son of Chinese immigrants who learns to play the trumpet, and a blind girl in the doorman’s building who learns to play the piano.
I thought it was a story told in words, but behind those words was a secret world of music.
The secret world of music hides behind most writers — it’s a world of hope and inexpressible emotion, a well that gives writers so much and asks for nothing in return, a place that assures us that, even if we don’t have the words to express what is in our hearts, there is a language that exists for the expression of this emotion.
“The Doorman,” which threads its way through the cacophony of city streets, through immigrant dreams, smackdowns and insults and soaring solos, sidesteps clichés and arrives right on target in the heart of things.
“Is memory something we don’t get to keep, that gets left behind in the world, to live again as music?” Mr. Van Booy asks.
He leaves us with this question, and I’m realizing now that I am just beginning to search for the answer to that question in my own life. I may be searching for a long time.
— Beth Young