I'VE SEEN PETER ORNER READ from his new novel, Love and Shame and Love, twice. The first time was in San Francisco, at the Booksmith. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I saw how Orner had signed my book: “To Lauren: Wishing you more shame than love.”read more
More shame than love? When I heard him read at the Mountain Bar in Los Angeles a month later, I teased him about it.
He was incredulous. “No!” He shook his head. “Did I really do that? I sign everyone’s book with, ‘Wishing you more love than shame.’”
We laughed. He promised to send me a new copy. “Don’t you dare. I’m keeping this one.”
“Well, you know, when you think about it … shame is more interesting than love … don’t you think?”
That sounds like a question the novel’s central character, Alexander Popper (or just Popper, as he’s referred to in the novel), would ask. He is a repository of memory. He wants to understand his family, why he is who he is, and whether any liberatory sense can be made of it. So he goes back to the stories of his parents and grandparents, Jews growing up in the early 20th century. There is his grandfather Seymour Popper, World War II veteran and insurance broker, and his wife, Bernice, a ballerina-turned-housewife; there are Alexander’s parents, Philip and Miriam, a politics-driven lawyer and the woman who married him, seduced by the idea of living in a big city; and there is Alexander’s older brother, Leo, the Poppers’ would-be consigliere, who takes it upon himself to educate his younger brother about the world. With each memory, whether his own or borrowed, Popper seems to be asking, Where does love come from and what does it do for us? Whether he gets any answers is murky, but in the asking, and the recalling, he weaves a beautiful narrative.
Orner’s fiction is lyrical and introspective. The characters are dimensional but remain mysterious, speaking to one another in dialogue filled with humor and well-weighted irony. Four generations of Poppers work to find their way in the ever-changing city of Chicago, while negotiating the spaces between their own desires.
Orner’s off-the-cuff musing that shame is more interesting than love is actually at the emotional heart of his epic family saga; though the moments of shame are not necessarily more interesting than moments of love, they have more staying power in the characters’ lives. Or rather, all the love that permeates the story is alight with shame, as if shame is an enzyme that unlocks and activates an otherwise useless nutrient. In this novel, everyone is ashamed of their loves, ashamed about who doesn’t love them, ashamed of never loving or being loved enough. And these darker feelings of humiliation elevate love to a higher register. Take Popper, for example. On their first date, Popper’s college girlfriend, Kat, praises Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, asking, “If we’re estranged from ourselves how can we not be estranged from other people, much less love them?” Kat and Popper end up estranged themselves, and Popper spends his time remembering, and failing to remember, the exact details of their time together, and mourning the loss.
Nobody in the novel feels loved enough. The neighbor, Mr. McLendon, throws rocks at streetlights, naked in the night, out of sad desperation at being ignored by his wife. Philip ...