Review of Joan Silber’s Improvement (USA: Counterpoint, 2017)
by Nidhi Arora
Joan Silber’s Improvement is a novel about many things as it is also about many people. It is about a single mother, Reyna, and her enigmatic aunt, Kiki, living in New York City. It starts with a tragic car crash, and traces the aftermath in the lives of those who suffered its impact. Silber takes on the unglamorous task of articulating how ordinary people deal with the curve balls that life sends their way, and she delivers on it. The winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and the 2018 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Improvement is an honest account of love and loss, forgiveness and remorse, despair and hope.
The narrative follows people, not time. However, it does so smoothly, holding us gently by the hand, not requiring us to loop through any kind of temporal acrobatics. It unfolds through the perspectives of people whose lives are linked by the car crash. Through this technique, the novel delivers piercing insights into characters who are spread across geographies and generations. Each chapter is a story unto itself, loosely threaded together by Reyna or Kiki, the book's two central characters. Two of the chapters have previously appeared as short stories in Tin House and the Colorado Review, and have also been anthologized.
The book is divided into three parts, pre-accident, post-accident, and denouement.
In the first part, we are introduced to Reyna, a young, single mother who works with a veterinarian. She goes through life trying to do the right thing, but without losing her wry sense of humor. “I always wanted the last triumph of behaving well,” she says. This proves significant later in the novel in a way that is both unexpected and yet completely in character. Reyna likes to document milestones of her life in tattoos on her arms, against the advice of her aunt Kiki to “not be a carpet.”
Aunt Kiki is a big presence in Reyna’s life. She spent her youth in Istanbul, but came back to New York as suddenly and inexplicably as she had left. She injects twelfth-century medieval philosophy into casual conversation, and is self-sufficient and cool-headed. She does not divulge much about herself and keeps Reyna, and the reader, wanting to know more.
The main event of the book takes place quite early on. Reyna’s boyfriend Boyd and his friends hatch a plan to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia to New York and make money off the tax difference. They rope in a driver since none of them are allowed or can drive. Initially, things go according to plan, and the group rakes in the cash. Refreshingly, these interstate smugglers are not hardened criminals, but a bunch of large-hearted, loving boys. Claude, the youngest in the group, gives a chunk of his loot to his sister Lynette for their mother, who struggles with addiction, and promises to set her up one day with her very own brow bar. Boyd buys a large television set for Reyna and her four-year-old son Oliver, and looks through apartment listings for the three of them. Reyna wallows in this stroke of fortune in good-natured smugness. “Dogs and cats gave me their panicked gazes or looked away, and I thought, Be brave, sometimes things turn out much better than you can tell.”
One day, however, the driver does not turn up. At first, Reyna agrees to drive, for no other reason than to please Boyd, but at the last minute, her maternal instincts prevail and prevent her from taking the risk. Claude takes the wheel, and that is the last we see of him. The car crashes into a truck and Claude dies on the spot. The shock of his death leaves his sister Lynette in a ghost-like stupor, and Boyd distances himself from Reyna. Reyna is riddled with shame and guilt for something that she is not entirely responsible for.
The ripples of the car crash spread much wider than Reyna’s world, and these ripples are the subject matter of the second part of the book, which dwells on Claude’s girlfriend Darisse, the driver of the truck Teddy, and finally on Kiki’s mysterious past. Baffled and upset by Claude’s no-show, Darisse goes through phases of anger, disillusionment, and grief. Her account has the same intense genuineness as Reyna’s, sprinkled with heart-wrenching observations, such as “A person can check her phone only so many times.” Like Reyna, Darisse does not get sentimental. She meets another man who is educated, well-mannered, and steady, everything that Claude was not. She accepts him as a stroke of good luck, but in her heart she misses Claude deeply. As Silber puts it:
A person could keep the best of certain private things to herself, so they didn’t fade, and she could lie flat-out, when she had to, out of loyalty to what once was. Nothing could get her to take back the lie; she was glad for what she held on to.
Old love suffuses every narrative in this novel.
After Darisse, the narrative turns to Teddy, the truck-driver whose life swerves into a long detour after the crash. This is the first instance when the shift in perspective and the story feels like a distraction. Although the writing remains enjoyable, the reader may wish for some strand of connection, however vague, with Reyna, Kiki or Claude. This is especially so as, thankfully, the next chapter, at long last, is about Kiki.
The clock is turned back and we are with Kiki in Istanbul when Kiki falls in love with the city and Osman, a carpet-seller. She marries and makes a life with him. A few years later, however, a chance visit from three German tourists, who turn out to be small-time smugglers of antiquities, reminds Kiki of her love for art and history, and this opens up heretofore unacknowledged rifts with Osman. When they decide to part ways, Osman gives her some of his beautiful carpets as a farewell gift. Giving one of these carpets to Reyna, she tells her niece:
Nomads… had once invented these tough carpets to carry from one seasonal dwelling to another, to warm the hard ground for sleeping and give any tent the mark of home.
Carpets, like old love, is a recurring motif throughout the book, as a symbol of beauty, love, sacrifice, sustenance, as well as greed. First with Kiki, then with Reyna, we see how a thing of beauty and love sometimes runs its course and needs to be abandoned in exchange for more practical things.
Surprisingly, from here on, the narrative stays with the German smugglers Steffi, Bruno and Dieter. This is the second juncture where the reader’s attention, and patience, may feel stretched. Unlike the amateur, likeable smugglers in Reyna’s life, the bunch of thieves in Kiki’s life enter after so much has happened in the novel. This late entry makes it harder to invest in another story that does not have much connection with the rest. Tenuous at best is Dieter’s mild, unfulfilled interest in Kiki.
The story comes full circle with Steffi’s daughter Monika. We are back to where it began, a little before the accident. The person who does Monika’s eyebrows is none other than Lynette, the sister of the late Claude. Through Monika’s eyes, we get to see Lynette in all her invincibility before Claude’s death. This plot connection, however, strikes this reader as coincidental and tenuous. The narrative's diversion through Germany does not seem to drive the plot in a material way.
The final part of the book comes back to Reyna. She has moved on with her life but her desire to help Lynette has not just stayed but has become stronger. When she finally hits upon an idea, she carries it out for her own moral sustenance: “Why had I done this? Not for gratitude (I’d given up that part). For my own private mind. My aunt always said that was what you had at the end of it all.”
Improvement is a moving story of hope and tenacity. It does not dwell on the tragic more than it needs to. Instead, it shines a rich light on the human spirit that enables people to get over misfortunes and accept the occasional stroke of good fortune, to muster strength to bear losses and still be the best version of themselves. It does not go looking for life-altering decisions; rather, as its title suggests, it celebrates small triumphs, the marginal improvements in all our lives.
Nidhi Arora was born and raised in India. Having spent over a decade in Singapore, she now lives in London with her family. She writes short fiction, essays, and reviews. Her work has been published in Asian, European, and American journals and anthologies. Some of it can be found at https://www.facebook.com/nidhi.arora.522066