Saturday, April 25, 2015

Like an Open Book: Reading The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Gabrielle Zevin's touching new novel examines love, life, literature, and the relationship between all of these. ♦
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by author Gabrielle Zevin is a booklover’s novel. It follows the life of a bookstore owner through heartbreak and triumph, both in the industry and in his personal life. It is sentimental without being overly so, and it name-drops so many writers it’s hard to keep track: Edgar Allan Poe. Grace Paley. Mark Twain. On and on. It also has a bookish humor that both literature majors and fans will appreciate: “At first, he had mainly bought mass-market paperbacks—Jeffrey Deaver and James Patterson (or whoever writes for James Patterson)…” Boom. (How else could one man deliver so many books in one year? But I digress.) This novel touches all the right places and is like nothing I’ve ever read before.
      Something that this novel touches on in spades is love, a simple word that holds so much complex meaning. Zevin gives new insight into what it means to love and be loved. As Fikry comes to realize, love can be cruel but it can also be annoyingly, life-alteringly everything. When we meet him, he is a man ready to give up on life due to an unexpected car crash that led to his wife’s death. As a result of Nic’s death, he has fallen out of love with his job and forgotten why he ever became a bookseller in the first place. Accordingly, his days are the same drudgery of getting up, grudgingly participating in his business of bookselling, which, naturally, requires him to interact with other humans, eating something frozen and stereotypically Indian (as he’s Indian), then drinking himself into oblivion. Rinse and repeat. But two random events save him from a life of alcoholism and allow him to have a new start to his depressing life. He doesn’t expect for love to enter his life, and doesn’t particularly want it, but it happens:
      “He feels drunk or at least carbonated," the narrator tells us. "Insane. At first he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it’s love. Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.”
      Zevin has the wonderful ability to portray how life happens whether we want it to or not. Life is remarkably like a Rube Goldberg machine: one book knocks into a pendulum and swings into something else, causing the events of our lives to take place. Several characters in the novel have different viewpoints on the events that make up the entirety of our lives; Fikry’s deceased wife believed in fate, while Fikry’s more of a coincidence guy. Regardless of what you call these events, I found myself thinking about how little control we have over so many instances of our lives. But A. J. shows that it’s what we do with the many instances that really impact the choreography of our lives.
      One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is the attention Zevin gives to literature. The very first page of the novel is a commentary written by Fikry about “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. He inserts one-page commentaries intermittently throughout the novel, referencing everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Raymond Carver's “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” He has very specific reasons for including each piece, some sentimental, some as words of advice, and we come to learn that these commentaries are letters for a special person in his life. The letters also give insight into Fikry’s relationship with literature and how it has evolved over time. The Storied Life reads like a love letter to fiction, booksellers, and sales reps alike. After reading this novel, I feel like there is hope for literature yet.
      Zevin appropriately gives attention to the minor characters of this novel, as it is told from an omniscient, third person point-of-view. Although the majority of the novel is seen through Fikry’s eyes, we get to look into the brains of the supporting characters as well, all of whom have had had a great impact on his life, from his police chief friend, Lambiase, who has grown to love reading through his interactions with Fikry, to Fikry’s former sister-in-law, Ismay, to a sales rep named Amelia, who deals with him tri-annually, to an inquisitive young girl named Maya. Their contributions add much the depth to the novel and our understanding of Fikry, and the flow never seems to stutter through the changing voices.
      A. J. Fikry isn’t predictable as a character, which is precisely why this novel works. It works because lovers of fiction will feel a connection with his story, making us likely to enter back into reality believing in the staying power of underdog bookstores. A fresh naïveté making nerdy idiots of us all, as Fikry himself might say.
  • About the Author
    Jordan Case is a graduating English Literature student with a minor in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She really enjoys reading, writing, and binge-watching shows on Netflix. While she's looking forward to graduation, she is still figuring out what's next. Isn't everybody?

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