How To Make Characters Lovable
Amy Bloom's stories reveal the crucial secrets.
The dynamism in a novel is dependent upon plot; the plot makes the thing go. The dynamism in a collection of linked short stories can, of course, hinge on plot. But it can also lie elsewhere—within the movement of the stories themselves; in subtle alterations in tone; in a change in perspective; in the ending of one story and the beginning of the next, so much more of a bump than a mere chapter ending can provide.
The second series of stories in this collection—the Lionel and Julia stories—have been gathered from other Bloom works (one is tempted to write Bloomworks, as though she were some kind of divine short-story factory): one from the 1993 collection Come to Me, and two from the 2000 collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Bloom has capped these three stories with a new one, which concludes the Lionel and Julia series.
Don't let the recycling deter you. I was poised to feel ripped off, but Bloom's impulse to pull them together made sense as soon as I read them, all in order. This set of stories features the inciting incident to end all inciting incidents: Lionel, a revered jazz musician, has died, leaving behind his wife, Julia; Lionel Jr., his son by a previous mother; and his and Julia's son, Buster. Riven by grief, Julia does the unthinkable. She goes to bed, for one night, with her stepson. The following stories trace the decades-long radioactive fallout from this encounter.
Over the years, Lionel becomes an elegant, elusive Parisian; Buster grows up to be a good egg and eventually a judge. As the sons come and go from Julia's life, Bloom touches on but never hammers the themes of family, sex, gender roles, and race (the kids are of mixed race, she's white). In the final story, one of the main characters dies. In fact, death hangs over these stories—the whole book—until the reader comes to suspect that where the god of love hangs out is among the dead and dying. When these characters lose someone important to them, they have a chance to experience small moments of compassion. The Lionel and Julia stories don't end with forgiveness; they end with the cool relief of acceptance. The characters aren't just objects of Bloom's nonjudgment. For a moment, they themselves are agents of nonjudgment.
I had made up my mind not to say anything in this review about Bloom's other occupation: psychotherapist. Reviewers are always invoking this as an explanation for Bloom's awesome powers of psychological insight and facility with character, as though it's not enough to be a measly fiction writer; you have to possess some kind of scientific credential as well. But isn't the job of the fiction writer to understand people? Jane Austen wasn't a psychotherapist. Henry James wasn't a psychotherapist. And I'd say they understood the human psyche pretty well. Surely it's as accurate to suggest that Bloom is a good psychotherapist because she's also a fiction writer.
Yet how to explain Bloom's enduring quality of nonjudgment? How to explain the way she plumbs and yet does not critique the human psyche? How to explain the tenderness she elicits from the reader for her characters? Here I am, in the same place other, wiser reviewers have arrived before me: Let's just say it's because she's a psychotherapist. It's as good an explanation as the elusive quality we call empathy.
Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.