After setting her first four books in and around the city, consummate New Yorker Joan Silber changed course. Ideas of Heaven (2004, Norton), her fifth book, introduced variations in time and place, which Silber reprises for her latest, The Size of the World, also from Norton.
In Size, Silber traces, through a subtle chain of coincidence, a path around the world: from 1960s Arizona and Vietnam to 1920s Florida and Thailand, 1940s Sicily, on to present-day Indiana. “I like the kind of fiction where you’re inside someone’s thinking processes,” Silber says. “In the past seven or eight years, I’ve been traveling a lot in Asia. I’d lived a year in Italy, but it wasn’t the same. When you travel to a place that’s so unlike what you already know, you’re parsing out what’s elemental and what’s incidental—what’s really primal, what counts and what doesn’t count. I want to get at the logic of that.”
Silber, 62, grew up in suburban New Jersey and for the next few decades stayed close to home. She went to Sarah Lawrence College, moved to Manhattan and mined her life for her first novel, Household Words (1981), which won the PEN/Hemingway award: it’s set in postwar suburban New Jersey and features a woman protagonist with an immigrant Jewish background. Silber’s second novel, In the City (1987), follows a Newark girl as she comes of age in Jazz Age Greenwich Village. The New Yorkers of Silber’s first story collection, In My Other Life (2000), can “hardly believe they’ve outlived their perilous youth” in the city, as PW’s review put it. And in Lucky Us, the novel that followed the next year, a May-December New York romance is shadowed by AIDS.
Ideas of Heaven, however, moves out of the New York comfort zone. Characters include a 16th-century Italian woman poet, a Boxer Rebellion—era missionary in China and a California would-be dancer, all searching for love and faith according to their own lights. The book is subtitled “A Ring of Stories,” and its six tales are interconnected by the ways in which a secondary character in one story becomes a primary character in another and, ingeniously, in the way writing links one character to another.
“The big leap for me was getting the idea that short fiction could do long spans of time,” says Silber over coffee and doughnuts in the sunny living room of her Lower East Side apartment. Her spiritual mentor in this approach was Alice Munro. Linking the stories has gotten easier to manage with The Size of the World, but Silber doesn’t map it out in advance. “I didn’t know where I was going with it. You can’t do that with a novel. You’ll just paint yourself into a corner.”
The first story in Size features two characters who are corporate engineers sent to Vietnam during the war to look into aircraft malfunctions. Its inspiration turns out to be close to home: “I was talking to [novelist] Margot Livesey about my brother, Ralph, who died 11 years ago and was really the model for Ernst, one of the engineers. She suggested I write about him, and whenever anyone says that, I sort of say 'pshhhh, no, no’—but it sits with me.” The story takes the two characters from Vietnam to the present in the space of 75 pages. “I’ve always worked with long time spans, except the second book. But I wanted this one to be more novel-like, as compared with Ideas. I wanted the stories to be a little more interdependent.”
Silber teaches at Sarah Lawrence, and she travels to Asia twice a year for two or three weeks. Thailand (or Siam, as the country was called before WWII) is a repeat setting in Size, and it is, in a way, the book’s center. Silber has been there three times. “It has changed me a lot to keep going back. You’re always guessing wrong. If you’re too sensitive about not wanting someone to get the better of you, you can’t go. You can’t have that kind of ego in travel.”
Silber admits it’s “sort of my goal to see as much of Asia as possible,” and will be heading back this summer. And she’s started a new book, also in the ring form. “I’m not done with that,” she says. Or with the world.