REVIEW // by Emily Collins
An Archipelago of Truths: The Island Dwellers by Jen Silverman
Jen Silverman’s debut collection of short stories, The Island Dwellers, opens with a simple question. In the first story, “Girl Canadian Shipwreck,” the narrator says, “When I was younger and I heard about anybody trapped anywhere, my first response was always just: why don’t you leave?” Silverman’s characters answer through a series of physical and emotional departures that land them in isolated corners of Japan and the U.S. These eleven loosely connected stories explore identity, sexuality, and what it means to call a place home. In intimate, first-person narration, The Island Dwellers reads like a series of private letters addressed to our hidden selves. Within these pages, narrators reveal their dreams and mistakes with a determination sure to speak to the hearts of outsiders.
A New York-based TV writer, novelist, and playwright, Silverman’s foray into the short story form comes with intimate first person narration and hilarious, intelligent dialogue reminiscent of Six Feet Under or Weeds. Her characters are misfits fighting to find their way in this world. At times that fighting hints at masquerade, ways to hide their true selves. They dim their origins so they may step into the disorienting glow of another self. In “A Great History of American Mistakes,” an Iowa professor seeks ways to flee her good nature. It isn’t easy. When reflecting on a prior relationship Sarah realizes, “I hadn’t been happy with him, but I also hadn’t wanted to fail at being good for somebody’s personal growth.” Being bad surfaces like an unexpected permission. She stops leaving tips at restaurants and begins an affair with her much younger teaching assistant. When the bad girl life implodes, Sarah faces the ambiguous nature of human inconsistency and finds solace in a new start.
In “White People” Silverman spotlights white liberalism and the dangers of fantasy. The piece is a wickedly funny cautionary tale that invites neither punishment nor resolution. A divorced couple meets weekly to discuss their steamy, progressive new relationships. Seth dates a young feminist, and writer Cynthia dates Elias, a modern dancer from Venezuela. One day she watches him dance and presumes, “If you thought about this [dance] as a political metaphor, it was clearly about self-rescue and not waiting for a higher power to step in.” And yet a higher power does step in. Cynthia’s pen is the higher power, as she conjures false, intimate details of Elias’s life based on conjecture and postcards she read without his consent. Her actions are cringe-worthy but not uncommon. When privilege co-opts attentiveness, distortions become the norm. Obsession is more romantic than love. Contaminated empathy is easier than the real thing.
Seth and Cynthia’s new relationships end, and the results are inconsequential. Seth learns he’s a mansplainer. Cynthia learns her relationship with Elias was never a relationship at all. Turns out, he wasn’t even Venezuelan. Seth and Cynthia laugh about it over sandwiches. Who cares if they were impervious to cultural nuances and details? After all, “What made anybody’s details so important?” Cynthia decides. They finish their lunch, satisfied.
About half of the stories take place in the electric heart of Tokyo. Expats and runaways lose themselves in the city’s quiet neighborhoods and alluring underworld. They marvel at their independence, in the unlikelihood of finding each other at all. “How did we get here?” A Colombian woman asks her girlfriend in “The Safest Place in the World.” In “Pretoria,” a woman longs for home as she considers a marriage proposal. She dreams of the South African sun and fears she’ll never feel that heat again. In Japan the streets are clean and the money is incredible. Unlike the “beautiful warzone” of her homeland, there’s no need to lock her doors at night. But when she moved to Japan, she never expected to stay. Respectable salaries and deep sighs of relief come with a price. She professes a disconnect between stability and strength, a fear that life in Japan will make her too weak to survive. In an unsent letter to her boyfriend, she writes what may be the mantra of every island dweller in this book, “The things that make me love you aren’t things I love in myself.”
Silverman’s characters have survived dead ends and fierce intimacy. They’re at their best when they struggle to know the difference. We wade through their confusions and find beauty in the rubble: The self is tender and horrifying. Home and origin are transient. Friends turn out to be strangers. We carry things as far as they can go then leave them all behind. We love in others what may not be present within ourselves. These stories, in their strangeness and familiarity, guide the reader on a journey through an archipelago of truths.