Aimee Bender | William Maxwell

#APStogether October 14, 2020

Read So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell with Aimee Bender in the eighth installment of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs. Details about how #APStogether works can be found here.

When I was in graduate school, a trusted friend told me about this novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, and how it was one of his favorites. He hooked me in when he mentioned a surprise move in the storytelling, something I won’t reveal now, because it would be a kind of lowkey spoiler, but it let me know the book was different than how it appeared; I didn’t imagine this plainspoken-looking novel would take such a risk. His comment got me in the door of the book, which is then full of further surprises; it’s a novel with a dramatic story to tell, and that intrigued me too, but it has a quiet core, a thrumming beautiful dignified quiet core about loss, and that is the magnetic pull that brings me to it again and again. I really look forward to reading and discussing it with you.

You can purchase your copy through our bookstore partners, Seminary Co-Op in Chicago and Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, DC.

Reading Schedule:
Day 1 (October 15) | Chapters 1 and 2

Day 2 (October 16) | Chapter 3

Day 3 (October 17) | Chapter 4

Day 4 (October 18) | Chapter 5

Day 5 (October 19) | Chapter 6

Day 6 (October 20) | Chapter 7

Day 7 (October 21) | Chapter 8

Day 8 (October 22) | Chapter 9

Day 8 | October 22
Chapter 9

What state are you in after Chapter 8? Chapter 9 knows we are carrying a lot, so first a pause, a lighter tone as we walk the streets with an older narrator, recalling “the Halloween party,” “the rooms so bright, so charming and full of character.”

I’ve always bristled when writing teachers talk about the importance of what a character wants. (Others feel this?) Sure, it can be very important. Lloyd wanted Fern, and all she meant to him…

But this book seems more about the things that happen to us—to children, to animals, to families-- and how that shapes who we are. (Other books that fall in this category? Often fairy tales do, though this book is powerfully real.)

Before the famously moving “I can’t bear it,” the release of pent-up grief for decades, we encounter a reveal. During the walks with the father, we newly hear of the presence of the coffin. The view of the room expands. Why show it here?

(One psychoanalytic interp: maybe the narrator can see it in a way he couldn’t before, this coffin he has been carrying invisibly with him his whole life, resulting in present/past collapse, and the tears.)

“It is there that I find Cletus Smith”—what do you make of this line? I find it quite moving but also slippery, hard-to-pinpoint. What is it about the time with Cletus that lives in the territory of things done/undone?

From writer Antonya Nelson: “I don't know how William Maxwell manages to balance those two stories, one plotted like a melodrama, replete with murder and mayhem, and the other a quiet meditation that hinges on the tiniest non-gesture of passing strangers many years in the past. It's a combination that oughtn't work. And yet it does.”

The end, looking through yearbooks, searching for Cletus’ face. The narrator feeling such guilt that maybe he drove Cletus out of town. And yet it seems there are two regrets—a more practical one, that he could’ve reassured Cletus that he wouldn’t talk...

and what he spoke of earlier, end of Chapter 4, a deep, basic humanity—“if I had turned and walked along beside him…” (51). The book itself becomes an act of walking beside him….

…fully imagining, as an adult, what this other child, his silent climbing companion, might have been carrying. Hoping for his future. “Unspoken words are at the center of this book,” writes Baxter. What words can do to show this.

Thank you for reading this incredible novel with me, for your thoughts, feelings, links, layers. Every time I read the book, it deepens for me, this time most of all.

Day 7 | October 21
Chapter 8

Oh, readers. So much raw (yet meticulously crafted) heartache in Chapter 8. I’m glad we’re reading it together. As @anotherannmarie noted, “this is the saddest book I’ve read for ages.” P. 112: “…take away… take away…”

As Charles Baxter says in his great essay on Maxwell “The Breath of Life”: “Their worlds will be destroyed, and, being children and mostly wordless, they will have no sentences for these unaccountable losses, and they will not be given any.”

Thinking of what @piaze wrote yesterday about how “the pain is filtered through the children in the book… children bear the carnage.”

Clarence is completely over his head in court, turns a corner; “His mind was filled with thoughts that, taken one by one, were perfectly reasonable but in sequence did not quite make sense.”

“Dog,” continues Baxter, is “a vessel of pure feeling” who “can express the core emotion of the book, deprivation.” Maxwell’s choice of dog POV here comes due fully, after what was just that brief internal visit in Chapter 5.

How magnetic it feels to circle back to her, again and again, the writing pulled almost gravitationally to the dog as she struggles with and voices her/their impossible losses. Our witnessing of a writer trusting himself.

Many authors cite Trixie’s presence as an inspiration for animal figures in their books. “And it wasn’t just the dog howling, it was all the dogs she was descended from, clear back to some wolf or other.”

Tom comes to life in the book to deliver insight about Fern’s youth, her desire to rebel, and his awareness of Clarence’s violent streak. Who hasn’t been Fern and disregarded knowing adult advice? (“… it was his very understanding that drove her to act.”)

Chasms between people: The Colonel’s political fretting about how to write a vague recommendation so wildly out-of-step with Clarence’s rising despair; Fern misreading Cletus’ anguish as indifference.

“A distant hammering: Pung, pung, ung…” We know this house. We know the strange temporary sanctuary it will provide for these two boys who are suffering silently and differently just a few doors down from one another.

Day 6 | October 20
Chapter 7

From writer/editor Daniel Menaker on the book: “The writing is as clear and sharp as grain alcohol. Mr. Maxwell once said that he consciously tried to achieve this clarity…

…by taking an idea or an event or a visual image and putting a layer of words over it that were as "transparent" as possible. And that is the sensation that many readers have had in reading this novel--as if there were no words at all, in a way.”

Chapter Seven is a kind of slow revving up; we’re staying with the townsfolk, spending time, lingering in details. Possibly a kind of held breath? Which side characters stand out the most to you?

Masterful barbershop scene: Poster (sight), clock (sound), textural world of the hair on the floor (“a minute before, they were part of Cletus Smith”); then, a shadow!...

…Barber speaks to Clarence (who we didn’t even know was there), barber POV, Cletus listens, evidence of friendship falling apart, boy blushing. SO much work done with intimate unconventional immediacy.

Marie calls out Lloyd’s passivity—“And that makes it more comfortable for both of you, I’m sure. But don’t ask me to believe it too.” Strikes me as important, since much of the book is also about what we can’t control.

Another echo of a mother gone, this house full of boys… “after that, he let them cry themselves to sleep, hoping they’d get over it sooner.” Maxwell gives the children dignity over and over again by describing their experience without flinching.

“The dust that blew into the house from the plowed fields…”; setting so bound to human experience that the landscape (both weather and farm) is palpably inside the house.

The objects continue to participate and reflect truth: “the oval photograph, adapting itself to circumstances, is now clearly the photograph of a dead man.”

Cletus shows a moment of insight into both parents while milking cows, met by a blow from his dad; we see how his words have no room, and also how Clarence is becoming increasingly unhinged.

Once again, a chapter ends on characters who are less central, the widow’s wondering about Mrs. Stroud, which fills in world, and allows a pause as we take a breath and look away before the emotional anvil drop of Chapter 8.

Day 5 | October 19
Chapter 6

Side characters enter, exit. Close eye on the difficulties of tenant farming and the full scope and possibilities of 3rd person now kicking in.

Female characters are described in detail but generally (though not always) have less interiority; the deep internal fullness of the book lives more in the boys and the men.

Lloyd’s sudden opening to love of Fern seems to descend on him, not unlike the way the mother’s death falls on the narrator’s family—these uncontrollable things in our lives… “a change in him so unexpected”

The animals continue to show awareness of their human companions—the horse, the dog, now “the cows sensed that he hardly knew what he was doing…”

The close third person on Lloyd humanizes him, his weeping quietly in bed at his rebirth, a joy he was not aware he was capable of—Giacometti’s quote on the sublime rumbling beneath.

And the friendship crumbling—“As if Clarence had met with an accident”; I’m thinking of the smaller friendship of narrator and Cletus and that small betrayal up against this large one. (Charles Baxter’s essay on rhyming actions).

Day 4 | October 18
Chapter 5

“William Maxwell's my favorite North American writer, I think… There were a lot of writers that I found in 'The New Yorker' in the 50s who wrote about the same type of material I did - about emotions and places.” (Alice Munro interview)

How he makes transparent his project of imagining on p. 56, the fictional empathic leap: “the reader… must imagine a deck of cards spread out face down on a table…”

“But first I need to invent a dog…” Maxwell, who can appear so modest on the page, is also so inventive, so free! Seems he gives himself permission to do whatever needed to get at the core of the material.

(It’s what got me into the book initially, my trusted friend in grad school saying, ‘he uses the POV of a dog,’ which I found startling.) So many incredible lines as we meet her: “she has made him a present of herself…”

(And the hawk, too! POV wide and inclusive.) Even the objects in the kitchen get their due… “Let us consider the kitchen the dog is not allowed into…. The woodbox, the sink, the comb…”

Cletus overhearing Colonel Dowling’s proprietary talk of the fields, his child radar alert and his internal pushback on their stuck socio-economic role in the town.

These descriptions of Aunt Jenny have a freshness in the way the verbs and objects function—better grammarians can explain? “…whose teeth spent the night in a glass of water….”

This time with Aunt Jenny and the house and handwashing and ventilations then funnels into info on the Smiths and their marital unrest as overheard by Cletus. The paragraphs build scene, add texture, land on a reveal. Then: back to handwashing.

“Other people, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her…” We don’t go inside Fern’s experience but others spot it, can report to us what Clarence can’t see.

Day 3 | October 17
Chapter 4

Quick aside: “corduroy knickerbockers”?!! When IS this book happening? This is how I imagine the idea of making “mix tapes” sounds to Gen Z.

“There was enough self-control in that household…” I’ve thought of this line often. How it honors the stepmother and narrator’s gentleness, and also shows Maxwell’s psychological acuity, knowing this can come at a cost, too.

As my Midwestern shrink father wisely says, every quality cuts both ways.

Big moment approaching at the end of the chapter. Big and yet so small. I think of George Saunders’ famous commencement speech: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

It begins with him feeling included, maybe for the first time, at school. And then moves to seeing Cletus. Not saying anything. The last paragraph evoking the walks with the father. “…it might have been the right thing to do.” SO QUIET and so wrenching.

Day 2 | October 16
Chapter 3

We’re architecturally in a new space, one where the windows and doors are open air, and Maxwell makes a leap to… MOMA? How odd, suddenly, to be in New York City, looking at a Giacometti, and yet yes, yes, why not?

Shifting time, space, perspectives. Gazing at “a cross between a male ballet dancer and a pterodactyl” in a lateral move, utterly assured. One of many of these moves.

The giant Giacometti quote adds even more-- Maxwell inside this narrator reading Giacometti on transformations. In Maxwell’s Paris Review interview, he says when he saw that quote, he thought “There’s my novel!”

Into the half-space enters Cletus Smith; “I suppose I said, ‘Come on up.’ Anyway, he did.” And they walk and climb together in the bones of something.

“I didn’t tell Cletus about my shipwreck, as we sat looking down on the whole neighborhood, and he didn’t tell me about his.” I keep thinking of these silences shared, the walking with the father, this sitting and looking and being.

The chapter doesn’t end with the brutal reveal that Cletus had to identify the gun (the same make as his bicycle, my god), but moves to his mother, briefly.

Which, in a brushstroke, gives us a glimpse of her, but also provides a pause so that Cletus can freshly begin Chapter 4, which will contain important info on him.

Day 1 | October 15
Chapters 1 and 2

Hello, #APS people! What a true pleasure to read this book with you. This book that begins with a pistol shot. Chapter title and event. So it appears to be a kind of mystery. I find this so interesting—what it presents itself as and what it is.

Another thing that always strikes me is how clear the language is. These lived-in sentences. They feel like they have been cooked down, and it’s not surprising to me that this is a late-in-life book; he wrote it when he was 71.

Who was shot? Why? It’s full of drama about neighbors, but then why is it in first person? It has the quality, traditionally, of a third person story. And then the ear?! Like a serial killer movie all of a sudden.

“Something I was ashamed of…” dropped on page 6: a potent nugget of emotional suspense for us to hold onto.

And of course one of the reasons I picked this book is because it’s about a crucial loss during the pandemic 100 years ago. This loss mirroring Maxwell’s own of his mother, the primary shaping grief of his life.

Quote from his Paris Review interview that has stayed with me: “I meant So Long, See You Tomorrow to be the story of somebody else’s tragedy but the narrative weight is evenly distributed between the rifle shot on the first page and my mother’s absence…”

“Now I have nothing more to say about the death of my mother, I think, forever. But it was a motivating force in four books. If my mother turns up again I will be astonished. I may even tell her to go away. But I do not think it will be necessary.”–Maxwell

The walking with the father. I think back to War and Peace, when Natasha is caring for her mother after Petya dies, children and parents trying to stay afloat together. Here: “…he walked the floor and I walked with him, with my arm around his waist.”

“With the help also of the two big elm trees…” on p10–this list! How he dignifies the care of the small. I find it a useful reminder. What are the little things in the world you lean on (are leaning on now) to get you through?

“…who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.” One can glimpse why Maxwell was such a beloved editor, a seer of writers.

Setting: Bootleggers, his father fishing, early 1920’s, a lot of White people in (somewhat) rural small town Illinois-- “a wan present” as they move with the stepmother to the rented house with the bedbugs, an interim space.


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