Poolside Book Review: Disappointed in “After the Parade”

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Writing this blog because I’m disappointed in this book, After the Parade by Lori Ostlund. I read it on recommendation from a new writer acquaintance who I think suggested it after reading this little vignette I wrote about a gay man driving home from a job interview — I didn’t make that connection until I started reading and realized the main character is a middle aged gay man. I liked the characters in this book and I really liked the writing, but I didn’t like the book because it doesn’t move forward. It starts like good stories are supposed to: en media res, in the middle. The reason this is supposed to work in a narrative sense is because the author can unfold bits of the past at the same time as moving ahead with a current plot, ideally giving the reader this really full sense of existence that feels like real life (moving through your day with your head full of memories and experiences, etc) and so is relatable and enjoyable. In terms of content, this book did that — gave equal page space to both past and present experiences — but let’s not forget that page space does not equal emotional weight.

Most of this book seemed to serve the purpose of either a) explaining why the narrator was the way he was (or why characters close to him were the way they were) or b) get the narrator half a step forward in life. In the sense of a), I end up feeling disappointed because the book feels like a riddle. “See this? It’s because this.”  I might as well be reading a textbook or a therapist’s notebook. And in terms of b), I’m disappointed because I get cheated out of an actual story. The book starts with Aaron leaving his partner Walter, and unpacks a lot of Aaron’s family history as it follows him on his journey out to San Francisco and into a new life. It book ends with Aaron realizing he misses Walter and reconnecting with him and all tat, but also more emotionally prepared to maybe be more a whole person in his next relationship — perhaps this guy George he just met at a pie shop, perhaps not. We don’t find out; the book just ends with Aaron thinking about it. The hint of that is meant to show us how Aaron has grown and changed over the course of the novel and to give us a glimpse into the idea of the kind of life he might live now that he has changed. So the emotional weight ends up falling 90% in the past and 10% in the present/future, which doesn’t leave us with a fair fight, which is what we need to stick around and carry on — the promise of something exciting even as the pages close.

I love the subtlety and gentleness with which the characters in this book are treated. And I love the way that literature allows us to sink in to hard places quietly and softly, because life can be loud and hard. But also, this is not how great literature was made. Do you remember the first 50 pages of Les Miserables? It takes a story to start a story. A hero’s journey involves a return, sure, but that involves two steps forward and one step around a whole wide world — not just down the front steps and sort of kind of back again maybe I’m not sure will they get out of the front yard or just go back inside and watch TV?

My assumption here is that great literature can and should change our people and our society. I’m happy if someone reads this book and relates to it and connects and changes and all that… but I don’t think it’s loud of drastic or enough enough to be carried along into the memories and actions of the future. I feel grouchy saying that but life is short and I’m on the hunt for books at really rock the world.

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