Novelist Explores Book Groups, Hollywood-Style

You or Someone Like You
You or Someone Like You
By Chandler Burr
Hardcover, 336 pages
Ecco
List Price: $25.99

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Chandler Burr i i

hide captionYou Or Someone Like You is Chandler Burr's debut novel.

Courtesy of Ecco
Chandler Burr

You Or Someone Like You is Chandler Burr's debut novel.

Courtesy of Ecco

Chandler Burr's debut novel, You or Someone Like You, is a must-read for any book group serious enough to spend more time discussing the book at hand instead of what wine to serve during the meeting. Burr's novel is about such a serious book group — one that tackles "off-road" authors like William Golding, Anthony Trollope, William Blake and Christina Rossetti. The group is formed in Hollywood of all places, where, as our main character observes, people talk on the phone all day long and, thus, put an "immense value ... on language"; yet, have an "utter disdain for the written word."

But the book-group plot constitutes only one of the unfolding stories in this smart novel, which is, primarily, a very tough reflection on the idea of "group-ness" itself — who's in and who's out; who's considered a full person and who's not.

You or Someone Like You is sure to stir up controversy because it doesn't just stick to the safe pieties of descrying discrimination in terms of race or gender; instead, it confronts what it sees as a more socially acceptable form of discrimination practiced by organized religion — specifically here, Judaism. Even raising the issue of whether Jewish solidarity is a form of self-preservation or exclusivity probably will invite accusations of anti-Semitism to be tossed at this novel. But Burr, like his main character, Anne Rosenbaum, clearly subscribes to the view that one distinguishing mark of a good piece of literature is that it doesn't set out to please everybody.

The gist of the story is this: Anne and her husband, Howard, met decades ago at Columbia University. Both were word-drunk English majors: Anne was a transplanted English Protestant girl; Howard hailed from an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. Against his parent's protests, they married.

When the novel opens, they've been living in Hollywood for decades, where Howard is a movie studio wheeler-dealer with ties to the New York literary world, and the more retiring Anne takes pleasure in books and her garden. During a business dinner, a studio exec turns to Anne, who's renowned for always carrying a book with her, and proposes that she make up a recommended reading list. The list circulates, and soon Anne finds herself leading book groups where the likes of producers and script doctors are going mano-a-mano about Mansfield Park.

Naturally, Burr can't resist cracking jokes about book group eating rituals. Anne tells us that:

The unwritten rule was that [the participants] brought dessert. In typical industry fashion, like emerging nuclear powers, they rapidly escalated the desserts in intricacy and number and size and exoticism and, quite predictably, cost. ...

The [Virginia] Woolf dessert was appropriate in size (small), but it cost eight hundred dollars and came in four cream-colored bamboo boxes lined in silver paper and tied with raw Andalusian hemp.

While Anne has her head in books, Howard, reacting to a deep family insult, finds himself drawn back more and more into the world of Orthodox Judaism that he left when he married Anne. She fiercely tries to hold onto him, and when he shuts her out, she communicates to him through the literature of her book clubs.

Anne sees herself as a universalist, like her beloved W.H. Auden who left England to settle in "a chaotic New York." Even as Howard engages in a search for origins, Anne defiantly counters with Auden's view that home is the place you choose. Literary as she may be, Anne also flings "unpoetic" words like "tribalism," "racism" and "bigotry" at the increasingly reclusive Howard.

When does cultural pride transform into cultural arrogance? It's an uneasy question we consider daily in this mixed-up democracy of ours, most recently with the controversy over whether Sonia Sotomayor's Hispanic pride remarks are or are not "racist." Burr's provocative new novel weighs in on the issue of identity politics and also makes a powerful case for why great books are a great danger to small minds.

Excerpt: 'You or Someone Like You'

You or Someone Like You
By Chandler Burr
Hardcover, 336pages
Ecco
List Price: $25.99

It is 4:1 8 a.m. when I realize Howard has come home.

I watch his outline in the still, dark bedroom stripping off the trousers of his navy suit, stained with sand and Pacific salt water. After a moment, I ask, Who has the life he wants?

He says nothing, standing in the shadows. I say, Wystan Auden did, one could argue.

Howard cuts in, "We're not fucking talking about Auden, Anne."

I am, I say with a calm I do not at all feel, talking about Auden.

We wait in the dark, in the silence, and I realize Howard is crying, his shoulders shaking beneath his stained, unbuttoned dress shirt, the tie gone, his chin down almost to his hairy chest, bobbing up and down with every sob, his eyes closed, his fists clenched. I am so stunned I cannot move for a moment, this big man in his underwear, crying, but then I jump out of the bed. I take him in my arms. He is large enough that his jerky, rough sobs push me back and forth, as if I was grasping an oak in a storm.

Howard, I say. Howard.

He is wiping his nose on his sleeve. He turns away from me.

"It's bad," he finally says, his back to me.

I retreat the tiniest bit. What do you mean, bad?

"No," he says. "I mean it's really bad. I've thought a lot about it."

He fills his lungs, and he looks out and down over Los Angeles. The fury in his head and the pain that almost cripples him baffle me. He frowns, turns his eyes from L.A., and I watch him riding it out as they wash through him. They push him, shipwrecked, onto some distant mental shore. After a moment he manages to say, "I can't help feeling like I did something wrong."

I say after the briefest moment, You mean we.

He doesn't reply. Then he says, "No, actually I mean I."

Too small for a commercial flight, out the large dark windows the taillights of a tiny plane draw a dashed line across the sky.

I hear the "I." I feel something very cold start to climb. The suddenly strange man who is my husband says, "There was something wrong before, and now I see it." He raises a hand like Caesar and adds in a loud voice, "Don't argue with me, Anne." His anger is gasoline vapor filling the room.

I already know, of course, what the anger is: I am now, for him, a different kind of person. Howard discovered this only recently, when he picked Sam up at LAX after our son's flight home from Israel. Simply by telling him what had happened in Jerusalem, the boy made Howard realize that Sam, too, is a different kind. It was inadvertent—Sam, who is asleep down the hall, never intended to lead Howard to the conclusions that have brought him to standing here in the dark, covered in sand and half-naked and sobbing—but inadvertent hardly matters now.

I watch Howard get the suitcase down from the walk-in closet, go to the dresser, and start taking out the soft white T-shirts Consuela folded yesterday. On my bedside table I look at my Modern Library W. H. Auden: The Collected Poems. I was reading it last night as the hours ticked by and Howard didn't come home. I have selected it for my next book club—the studio executives—for one very specific reason: Unlike Howard, Auden, the adamant universalist, saw all people as the same kind. He called the human species "New Yorkers," and to him they were, otherwise, nameless.

I hear Howard murmur. I have to focus on it to clarify the words. "There's something missing, Anne."

I cast about for the thing to say. I say, as quietly as if I'm afraid of shattering something, There was never anything missing before.

He merely breathes for a moment, wincing. Then, "There is now."

He is walking to and from the suitcase in the shadows. The sun will be up in about fifty minutes. I hear his feet. Howard, I say.

(I can't bear the silence.)

Oh, Howard! I implore him, please talk to me.

"It's not necessarily rational," he says, his eyes on the things in his hands, and adds, his jaw tense, "To you that means it's suspect. I used to feel that way. Now I don't."

As he packs, he begins to speak about having left an island long ago and wandering in the wilderness but the little island never forgot him, about a home that he betrayed, about a man in exile (in exile? I ask; in exile from what, Howard? but he doesn't stop), and about longing without realizing he was longing—and my saying, How can you long without realizing it? and his digging in his heels at this, putting his head down, his voice rising by several decibels as if sheer willpower could win the argument.

He wraps some black shoes in felt. There is a suit bag. He is leaving our home.

Who will you be staying with? I ask.

He is struggling with the suitcase. "I'll be in touch," he says through gritted teeth, working on the lock. He snaps shut the case, hefts the suit bag. Glances heavily at the dresser to check that he hasn't forgotten anything.

Who will you be staying with?

It takes an instant for his feet to begin to move.

I hear his footsteps going down the hall. The kitchen door opening, a moment of auditory void, then the sound of it closing. An eternal period, and the car's powerful German engine wakes again, calm mechanical equanimity. I listen to the recessional down our driveway.

The faint sound of gravel crunching under tire comes through the open window, then the engine, the car leaps forward, and Howard vanishes into what is left of the night.

The movie cliché is the woman reaching out her hand, touching his pillow, and only then remembering. But I, when I wake again, find by contrast that my brief sleep has been entirely drenched in a blue distillate of his departure, such that even awake I confuse waking with sleeping and believe dreams to have become merely mundane. Unlike in the movies, there is never a single instant I don't know that he's gone.

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You or Someone Like You
You or Someone Like You

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