Are We the Butterfly or the Tornado?: Joan Silber’s “Improvement”

November 15, 2017   •   By Tara Ison


Joan Silber

“SOME PEOPLE designed their body art so it all fit together, but I did mine piecemeal, like my life, and it looked fine,” insists Reyna, the central character of Joan Silber’s new novel, Improvement, a beautifully rendered magical mystery ride across decades, continents, and cultures.

But a design not meant to look like a design is still a design, and Reyna’s description of her body-as-canvas captures the question at the heart of Silber’s story: What of our life is mere chance, and what are we determining through the choices we make, our acts of autonomous free will? Are we the wing-fluttering butterfly in the Amazon jungle, or the tornado whose trajectory has, weeks later and hundreds of miles away, been altered by significant degree? Where are we, exactly, in the chain of cause and effect? Are we the designer or the designed?

The design of Reyna’s life is very piecemeal, indeed: she is the young single mother of a rambunctious four-year-old son, Oliver; she barely ekes out a living from her job at a veterinarian’s office; and her boyfriend Boyd is doing a short stint at Rikers Island for a minor drug offense. It is New York City, 2012, Hurricane Sandy is about to buffet the city, further overwhelming precarious lives, and Reyna is scrambling to keep it together, to shape her life into a meaningful, manageable pattern. She tries to explain her tattooed arms to her Aunt Kiki:

I had a dove and a sparrow and a tiger lily and a branch with leaves. They all stood for things. The dove was to settle a fight with Oliver’s father, who was much less nice than Boyd, my current boyfriend; the sparrow was the true New York bird; the tiger lily meant boldness, which I was big on when I was younger; and the branch was an olive tree in honor of Oliver. I used to try to tell Kiki they were no different from the patterns on rugs. “Are you a floor?” she said.

Reyna hopes to create an aesthetic, to live with bold intention, but sixtysomething Aunt Kiki, who knows a thing or two about both life and rugs, is worried Reyna is allowing Boyd to walk all over her. Her concern seems justified when, after his release, Boyd, along with his friends Maxwell and Wiley and his cousin Claude, cooks up a get-rich-quick scheme to smuggle cheap cigarettes from Virginia into New York City. Initially Reyna objects to this plan — this could send Boyd back to prison for serious time — but her protests dim as she reaps its rewards; she does like that big shiny TV Boyd has bought her, after all. She also likes the approval she gets for her Cool Girl equanimity; Boyd reports that all the guys long for a woman as awesome as she is, and she basks in the glow of their praise: “You carry yourself differently when you have a line like that to recall all day.”

Most of all, she wants to prove her love. She wants the charismatic and sexy Boyd happy, and happy with her — her need of him is tinged with the ineffable craving for love to color one’s life with mystery. When after several profitable smuggling runs Wiley drops out of the plan, the guys try to convince Reyna to step in as their driver. After some show of reluctance, she admits, “I was perfectly aware (or just then I was, anyway) that some part of my life with Boyd was not entirely real … And then I saw that I was probably going to help him with the cigarette smuggling, too […] all because of beauty.”

Reading this is like reading a Carolyn Hax or “Savage Love” advice column, the smug Honey, no…! exasperation one feels for someone making such obviously irresponsible choices, because beauty, because love. What to do with a character whose desperation renders her so willfully blind? Relate to her completely, of course.

Fortunately, Reyna comes to this realization herself. “I’m a mother, you know,” she reminds Boyd (yes, please prioritize your child), refusing to participate further. Boyd is infuriated, their relationship frayed. On the next run, cousin Claude is killed in a car accident, Maxwell is hospitalized with severe injuries, and Reyna is consumed by guilt — surely this was all her doing, of course she is to blame. As proof, she is scapegoated and shunned by the entire group, including Boyd; the glamorous glow he has brought to her life vanishes in an instant: “Love was nothing, love was a vapor.”

This choice, this single wing-flutter of Reyna’s, sends tornadoes through the rest of the novel, which now unfolds as a rich tapestry of interwoven narratives, a Rashomon-style puzzle of points of view. A shift to Aunt Kiki’s story here might have seemed logical; her presence thus far in the novel — the allusions to this “hippie sweetheart” of an aunt and her colorful past living with a carpet dealer in Turkey — has been intriguing. But instead we abruptly shift to Darisse, Claude’s sort-of-secret girlfriend in Virginia. She has been left adrift by Claude’s sudden disappearance, which she ultimately interprets as abandonment.

Darisse has much in common with Reyna: another struggling single mom, in thrall to a sparkling guy, working a low-pay job as a home health aide. She is caring for a woman dying of lung cancer while still dying for a cigarette herself. (How addicted we get to the toxic!) Darisse cleans up other people’s messes while trying not to make a mess of her own life. Claude’s entrance on the scene, like Boyd’s presence in Reyna’s life, had brought love, mystery, excitement, and the allure of both emotional and financial comfort:

When someone like Claude came along (actually no one like him had come before), she was thrilled by the gifts and the promises — who wouldn’t be? — and she naturally started thinking about what being with him more might mean. If she had a chunk of money in her hand, she could get Lionel to give her Jeshauna back. Might not take that much. And Claude always said, “No nickel-and-diming when you with me.” Had said. She’d heard him say it but it was becoming very much like something she’d made up.

A new man appears, Silas, a hospice nurse who seems stable and kind, a reliable maker of breakfast waffles who offers a steadier, less-glittery love. But even if Darisse tries to alter her course toward this wonderful man — clearly an improvement over Claude — she will be forever haunted by the what if? of her disappeared lover: “Darisse already knew the part about nobody getting away with anything. Every mistake of hers had come back to bite her.” She, too, will always be emotionally tattooed by her past.

Next we meet Teddy, the 57-year-old truck driver who drove the truck that killed Claude. The accident was not his fault, and yet the fallout sends Teddy’s own life skidding off course. Already barely making a living, his truck now inoperable, he must battle his own lawyer and the insurance company for the payout that will get him back on the road. But it isn’t about the money; financial stability is alluring, yes, but as with Reyna and Darisse, it’s the lure of an emotional reward, of comfort and escape, that proves so destabilizing. Teddy, unsteadily married to second-wife Leah, has also been sleeping with his ex-wife Sally, and the accumulating guilts he feels — What was his role in the death of his first marriage? What is his responsibility in possibly destroying his second one? What part did he play in the deadly accident? — are derailing him.

Twenty-six years earlier, after their marriage had ended, Sally had written to Teddy that “she hoped his new life was a shitload better than his last, there was a lot of room for improvement,” and perhaps this seismic car accident is actually his second (or third) chance at charting a new and better life course for himself. Happy at last to get his truck back, for “he’d secretly been afraid they’d find something else that would cost too much to fix,” Teddy nevertheless, like Darisse, hesitates at the crossroads. He is literally at an intersection, debating: Should he go home to Leah, or “home” to Sally?

Okay, he had to get back in his truck now, no matter what, and he got up and made his way across the cold parking lot. Inside the truck he sat again, looking out through the windshield. Nobody had forced him to stop at this stop. He missed Sally, the pang was worse here, her voice was in his head, more than her voice. He was never going to see her again, and that was the way it was. […] And when he got the engine started and had the rig out of the parking area, he moved very slowly, looked at all the ways he had to look, slipped onto the ramp and waited as long as he had to, thinking all the time of the unlucky boy driving that crapmobile, rushing to get to some girl.

Some things will always cost too much to fix; some things we may never be able to improve.

Now we return to Aunt Kiki, to her decades-earlier, wild-child, nomadic life traveling as a young woman in Turkey, in love with its history, the beauty of its colors and scents and sounds, its spiritual vibe, as well as in love with carpet dealer Osman: “She’d been so proud of herself, to see where love was bringing her next.” Is she chasing a dream? Being tugged along by a thread of Fate? She and Osman end up on a middle-of-nowhere farm with a going-nowhere marriage, but her undreamy life is enlivened by the arrival of Bruno, Steffi, and Dieter, three German kids trying to smuggle low-end antiquities. Kiki cherishes the history and totemic value of the pieces, while the kids simply see the profits as affording them a good time. Despite her disapproval — similar to her niece Reyna’s in the years-later cigarette-smuggling narrative — Kiki finds herself attracted to Dieter: “Was this her next adventure, come in off the road to summon her?” She declines his offer to run off with them, but it does inspire her to hit the road on her own, to redraw the pattern of her own life: “For a hard-hearted person, she had let herself be flung about by the winds of love,” and while she has no regrets, she also has fewer illusions about the often-deceptive, vaporous powers of love. She returns to New York, taking several beloved Turkish rugs home with her. Some she will sell to live on (the price of her independence), and one she will give, many years later, to her niece Reyna, explaining, “Nomads […] had once invented these tough carpets (Oliver could spill stuff on it) to carry from one seasonal dwelling to another, to warm the hard ground for sleeping and give any tent the mark of home.”

As the narrative weaves through its global roundelay — from Dieter’s romantic entanglements back in Germany to Bruno’s estranged daughter Monika’s art research in New York and Claude’s sister Lynnette’s dreams of opening her own eyebrow salon — characters new and old struggle with the central question: How does one evade responsibility for the uncomfortable results of one’s actions and choices, while retaining the comforting illusion of having any control at all over one’s destiny? All along, questions of how and when to value what we have — Is it when we possess it? When we give it away? When we steal it, or when it is stolen from us? When someone else puts a price on it and tells us what it’s worth? — plague Reyna and her cohort, until they ultimately give way to one character’s disillusioned conclusion, “People thought love was everything, but it could only do so much and no more […] [s]urely too much was asked of love.”

New Puppy? Love is not Enough” reads a sign on the wall at the vet’s office where Reyna works, and Reyna has come to appreciate its life-lesson implications: “This was about dogs needing to be taught to live with humans, but I always thought of it as a more universal warning, a reminder of the limits, a bit of truth from the roughest frontier.” Improvement is a marvel of dimensionality, an astute, lyrical portrait of characters linked by their limits and their truths, by the choices that have shaped their lives, and by the destinies they have tried so hard to construct.


Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of the short story collection Ball and the essay collection Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies.