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The Understory by Pamela Erens

The Understory

by Pamela Erens

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(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

(*Please note that I read and reviewed this under the impression that it's a brand-new book, when in fact I was just reading the brand-new second edition; it was originally published in 2007, with this new edition being published as a promotional tie-in with Erens' newest novel, Eleven Hours, which we will also be reviewing later this year.)

Usually, quiet novels about intellectual introverts are a real hit-and-miss proposition for me; but I have to say that I really loved Pamela Erens' take on the subject, the beautifully done The Understory, mainly because she looks at such a person from an outsider's perspective and presents him as a sort of broken human we should avoid trying to be, instead of the "Proust-reading hero battling a world of morons" that so many of these other books present such characters. A slim novel that's just as much about Manhattan as it is about the people being discussed, and especially those overlooked corners of Manhattan that make it such a friendly city for intellectual introverts (the dusty used bookstores, the forgotten '50s diners, the rundown rent-controlled apartments that millions walk by each day without ever giving a second thought), this is the world our OCD narrator Jack inhabits almost exclusively, a man with a minute-by-minute daily schedule that hasn't changed in years (as a great example, it takes him nearly a month to accept the idea of the subway system moving from tokens to fare cards), whose life is thrown into utter turmoil when the building where he's been illegally living for a pittance (taking over a dead uncle's apartment without ever resigning the lease himself) is sold to a developer who wants to gut it and turn it into high-end condos. It's an unbelievably sad and deep character study, of a man who does things like casually realize his birthday was the previous week and that he had completely forgotten to acknowledge it, a man who has his photo taken by a "People of New York" type photographer and can literally not recognize his own face when looking at it; and it's a devastating look at the types of aggressively antisocial people who inhabit big cities in the millions around the world, all the more powerful for being written in such a subtle, poetic way. It will absolutely not be everyone's cup of tea, which is why it's getting only a so-so general score; but it's a must-read for anyone who enjoys delicately written character studies of the kinds of people generally overlooked by history at large, and it comes strongly recommended today specifically to those types of readers.

Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.8 for fans of quiet and poetic character studies ( )
  jasonpettus | May 9, 2016 |
Six-word review: Eccentric loner faces challenges to survival.

Extended review:

I read this small book because it was recommended for people who liked Stoner. I loved Stoner. I did not love this.

It's the story of Jack Gorse, a disturbed individual--and what a popular theme that is these days! what endless metaphors for a sick society!--who faces eviction from his Manhattan apartment and finds himself irresistibly drawn to the young architect who is sent out to photograph the building. The story is divided between Jack's ritualistic daily routine of walks around the city and his eventual flight to Vermont to take refuge in a Zen monastery where Patrick, the architect, had once been a resident.

The real story, of course, is the inner one: the mental and emotional state of the man, his delusions, his obsessions and fixations, and especially his attachment to Patrick. He stalks Patrick with all the guile and single-minded persistence of a Golyadkin or a Charles Kinbote. And even while we recoil from his too-close pursuit, we can sympathize with the lonely, needy imagination that impels it. Jack is at once an alien being that we want to shy away from and the hidden self that fears deep down that it deserves to be rejected. We are involuntary eavesdroppers on Jack's interior monologue. Here he is at the used bookstore he always visits on his walk:

Each morning, before I settled in, I checked each shelf to see if anything had been sold since the day before. Carl's business was not brisk, and there were days when he did not appear to have sold a single book. This comforted me. I took an almost proprietary interest in his stock, and it pained me to find anything missing. So I would go down each row, scanning the familiar spines, stopping if I spied a gap. There, in U.S. History: a book called The Indian Wars had vanished. It was always possible that a careless customer had put it back in the wrong place, or that Carl had sent it out for rebinding. But more likely it was gone for good. I ran my finger over the row, wincing as I passed the closed-up spot. It was like feeling a phantom limb. (page 110)

Attachment, clinging, and loss in large ways and small are the very causes of suffering that Jack might have learned about as a sincere student of Zen; but he is not a sincere student. Rather, the zendo and monastery are nothing but means to an end, to get something he wants.

Jack is a pathetic specimen, his wants and needs gaping, his story poignant; and yet there is a resiliency, a canny knack for survival, that we can't deny.

So why isn't this short novel more compelling? Why don't I love it?

It's not so easy to cite a reason. I've read books with no more story than this, books with weaker style, books with less complex characters and with similar environments, that somehow resonated more with me. They seemed to go deeper while at the same time not taking themselves quite so seriously. There's a similarity to Firmin, for example, but without its quirky premise, its humor, and its cheerful, unapologetic moments of vulgarity. But the writing is fine enough, rich enough, that I feel I ought to like it better.

Do I suspect that the author herself really doesn't love her character? Possibly.

The gap between this work and Stoner seems immense to me. Perhaps the crucial difference is in the focal character himself. Stoner has an integrity that Jack does not. Both are lone beings driven by inner passions, but Stoner is not narcissistic, does not indulge in self-justification, and does not impose his demands on others. He possesses a moral soundness that is exactly what Jack lacks--Jack who, even as a youngster, malingered in order to hold hostage a young friend who'd visited him throughout his illness. Stoner is humble and yet quietly self-sufficient, never acting entitled to serve himself and his own interests at the expense of others; ultimately what we see in him is not turmoil but serenity. Jack's desperation and his craving are real, but that is not enough to compel affection, either Patrick's or mine. Unlike Stoner, he never becomes a person whom I would like to know.

In the end, I don't hope he gets what he wants. That seems to me to be a fatal flaw. ( )
  Meredy | Apr 18, 2015 |
A superb, character study of a troubled lonely man. The beginnings of his disfunction are not explored but his unraveling is described from its first blatant occurrence on. The writing, the use of scene, and all of the characters are excellent. ( )
  snash | Dec 22, 2014 |
Wow, this is an incredibly over-looked little gem that I only found out about because it was advertised in "Tin House" literary magazine. It is a quiet yet very suspenseful story of the crumbling life of a socially awkward yet brilliant loner (attorney Jack Gorse, who no longer practices and somehow ends up in a monastery in Vermont - yet we know New York City is dear to him) losing his ability to sustain his lifestyle. Although he says it is due to a devotion to reading and literature, little by little the reader gets the "understory" about his circumstances. The unfolding of this story is a large part of the joy of this book, so I will not give details about that. But the character development, not just of Jack, but of the people he meets, is fascinating, real and at times, disquieting and incredibly sad. This novel has a lot to say on getting lost in this world, loving a city, patterns and comfort; but mostly it is one of the most astute renditions of longing I have ever read in my life; and what can happen when the object of love may not feel the same way. The author's empathy for her protagonist (who is in equal shares hard to like as he is endearing) resonates throughout the story and it really made me look at people differently. Powerful literature. Highly recommended. ( )
  CarolynSchroeder | Nov 9, 2014 |
Jack Gorse is a complicated man. The particularity of his nature is revealed in the book’s opening paragraph as he describes an episode of curdled cream in his self-serve coffee—an episode that led him forever after to drink his coffee black and obsessively double check each time he fills his cup.

We soon learn that he is also facing eviction from a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, an apartment he has illegally inhabited for years following the death of a similarly named uncle. The slow, cold war of attrition that ensues leaves Jack the only remaining tenant, and the architect hired to oversee the project his only human contact.

The ever unfolding layers of Jack’s personality reveal a man both intelligent and oddly naïve, shy and slyly voyeuristic, cunning and emotionally guileless. He is a fascinating man. He is also a quiet man, but even though this story is a first-person narrative, I would hesitate to label it a quiet book. The Understory crackles with the energy of compulsion and unrequited obsession that is slowly and meticulously revealed in a way that could be called meditative (for its gradually deepening understanding), except for the fact that Jack fails miserably at meditation. No, the true genius in the storytelling here is that Jack reveals his deepest self, without actually revealing his deepest self. He simply recounts, while we see what he cannot.

In fact, it’s this continual dichotomous tendency that serves up the book’s delicious tension. Gorse is beset by a stubborn ennui that plays against a dramatic narrative backdrop of eviction notices, narrowly escaped fires, and a culminating scene of violence that is as sudden and unexpected as it is dramatically right.

The Understory is a book that relentlessly and incrementally pulls you forward on intelligent tenterhooks till you slap against a conclusion that resonates long after the turning of the final page. ( )
  mlakers | Dec 26, 2008 |
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