January 23, 2008
Four Letter Word by Knelman and Porter
Whatever it is that’s just a bit thrilling about despair, it’s the very reason “Long Long Time” has been running through my head for about fifteen years. Linda Ronstadt warbling the entire spectrum of human emotion, with no intention of cheering up anytime soon, and though it’s enough to make tears pool at the brim of your eye, you’re not going to cry. As another song goes, “It’s only love, and that is all… but it’s so hard…”
Only love. As wrong as the most empty conjunction I’ve ever read: “mere happiness.” How much its writer mustn’t know, for there is nothing “mere” about happiness. And there is also nothing “only” about love, but who wishes to be “mere” or “only” anyway? With just a simple injection of despair (“living in the memory of a love that never was”) love is elevated to the stuff of epic drama, or at the very least the stuff of cheesy seventies pop lyrics. Warble warble warble.
Which is not to say that Four Letter Word is the stuff of pop lyrics, warbled or otherwise. Rather than this book has set me thinking about love, what we make of it. And what happens to love when we set it down in letters, here letters in the fictional: an ingenious premise for an anthology. By some absolutely brilliant writers, including some of my favourites, and a dust jacket to die for (I wish you could see the spine and how it’s printed like a whole packet of different sized and coloured letters, all gathered by a ribbon thank you Kelly Hill).
These fictional love letters were collected by editors Rosalind Porter and Joshua Knelman in order to “resurrect [the] dying custom [of the love letter] and to remind us of how seductive words are.” Indeed, these letters manage to seduce us with entire stories, communicated in one voice with limited perspective, often with second-person narration, some in just mere paragraphs. What a literary feat, I think, for what results is not a gimmick, epistolary indulgence, but storied stories, with all the voice, character and plot one would look for in such a thing.
And that it’s not “only love” and very rarely “mere happiness” which run through these stories is unsurprising, considering their form. As romantic as love letter might be, they’re indeed a sign of something gone wrong, for shouldn’t lovers be together? Kept apart by distance, death or fate would bring inevitable despair. Peter Behrens’ soldier writing from the front, traumatized by France 1944. Nick Laid’s Ruth writing to her deceased father: “Do not come back to us. Do not come back.” Joseph Boyden’s husband looking for his wife in post-Katrina New Orleans: “I didn’t want to let go of your hand.”
Certainly there is darkness here, letters by vulnerable children with no idea of the burdens they bear. Letters which we, the readers, know will inevitably go unsent, unreceived or unread. But there is considerable humour too, even amongst the despair. From a lovelorn chimp to “Miss Primatologist Lady in the Bush Sometimes”. Lionel Shriver’s Alisha’s emails, increasingly erratic as she’s not responded to. Tessa Brown’s letters in which a lover scorned critiques her boyfriend’s phone messages are disturbingly amusing (with footnotes).
Interesting that the stories here which come closest to “mere happiness” are not written to people at all: James Robertson’s ode to hillwalking, Jan Morris’s song to her house. The always-impressive Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie does write a letter tinged by possibility rather than loss, and driven by an undercurrent of joy.
Four Letter Word is useful on a variety of levels: being definitely readable, time slipping by like the letters were true and addressed to you. Inspiring thoughts of what love means, today and for always. Providing exposure to a variety of contemporary writers from a variety of locales and even (!!) some in translation. And being completely unlike any anthology I’ve ever encountered before, a whimsical exercise resulting in a collection with literary solidity and truth.