Let Us Not Forget About Sadness: A Letter to Ben Greenman, A Week After Reading His Book

Dear Mr. Ben Greenman,

Some books just hit me the right way. Your short story collection, What He’s Poised to Do, sure as hell did, and in my saner moments, I wonder if I should be embarrassed. I’m furious with love for your book, and a part of me wants to distance myself from this furious love, and wonder where it came from. What my motives were, if there are any. What could have been happening inside me – perhaps it’s still happening now – when I picked up your book, when I set it back down. Perhaps I am a sad person. Then again, I know that already. Perhaps I like reading the work of someone who has confessed, rather matter-of-factly, that he likes sadness too, or, well, is accustomed to it:

I write often about sadness and loneliness, which are present in all of us but which are harder to detect (if easier to feel) amid the modern-day rush of communications technology. The only cure, I think, is intimacy, which is what the people in my stories are struggling to achieve.

It seems like a very indulgent thing, no? To focus on the sorrows of the world. I do that too often, and it’s not always a wonderful feeling. It rarely leaves something good inside you, if you trap all this fascination inside you. I guess I should let you know that I write. Or, well, that I used to write. It has been more than two years since I wrote a story I was confident in sending out to the world, a story that I could say, “Yes, I am proud of that.” I’ve examined this drought, and have wondered if there aren’t any more stories left inside of me, that maybe I have to really go out there and get it, but I always come up with excuses from doing so. I have wondered, too, if I’ve lost the ability to distance myself from my sadnesses. Because, really, there’s a lot of it inside me, and I am all too attuned to its presence all around me. Who knows?

The conversation you had with a friend, where she accuses you of refusing to acknowledge the sadnesses of people, that you “felt compelled to push forward with a kind of dumb combination of empathy and superiority.” And the way you mulled this over in your head:

Isn’t that where much art comes from? You feel the pain, it starts to drive you to your knees, you bring yourself back up by telling yourself you don’t belong down in the pain, you move forward on this cushion of temporary superiority, and then you use the energy generated by this process to create something. In fact, after a few times, you come to value the sadness, to receive it with a kind of joy, because you know that it will, in time, bring you to creative work.

It’s such a mercenary way of thinking about things, how nobly arrogant. I wish I’d touched upon it first. Oh, the superiority is there – and I like to think the empathy is too – but I’m waiting for something, for things to click. For that decisive step backward, to survey, thinking myself untouchable from it all – but, really, I think you and I both know that that’s not possible, and that’s what makes it work. This delusion that what we hold up to the light can’t possibly filter down towards us. And yet we write on. Or I will, soon. Eventually.

I have rambled.

So, yes, I loved your book. I read this more than a week ago, and I know this to be true: I love your book. Your collection, there is not one story I didn’t like. Some, of course, I loved more than others, but there is not one story I didn’t like.

The men and women in your stories – so very restless, and yet very reflective without being self-indulgent, without being off-puttingly self-conscious. How you handle the basic question of yearning through correspondences – letters! Connections: Correspondences. [You know of this pun too, so I feel free to use it.] How to solve this self-replicating problem of intimacy, or lack of it, or too much of it, or the wrong kind.

In “Against Samantha,” a young man finds himself [what a passive phrase, no?] in love with the mother of his fiancée. There’s nothing sensational about this. You’ve made it so still, so inevitable. You’ve told your story, unraveled this man’s feelings so simply, there’s no room for distaste:

She was the smartest woman I had ever met, and she was the mother of the woman I was to marry . . .

. . .  Samantha wanted her mother’s wisdom but feared the rest: She worried that the ravages of time would erase her beauty, which was substantial, and turn her into something more ordinary. “We all become our mothers, she said, by way of apology. I did not tell her I was banking on it.

What I admire, and envy, is your range. You don’t let yourself get boxed in. You span decades, centuries, men and women, their joys, their heartbreaks, their relentless hoping. There. In the story titled – simply and gravely – “Hope,” Tomas Tinta [tinta=ink, my goodness!]spends most of his lifetime writing letters, mostly unsent, to the woman he loves. It could stop at this romantic-ness but you didn’t settle. How you apply your tone, your voice. Oh, the narrative too, yes, it’s there, but it’s the storytelling that really had me kicks me where it hurts. In every single story.

And your language! In your story, “From the Front,” you described this slowly-going-mad man thus: He believed that his wife was also a character in a book he had yet to read. I got the chills. Such beautiful madness. But I’m biased. Although you probably know that by now.

You’re occasionally violent and disquieting. But your inherent fascination with sorrow, and the language you use – it’s all just beautiful to me [excuse me for overusing that word]. And so even something as potentially icky [my language is corroding, haha] as what’s hinted at, and eventually revealed, in “Country Life Is the Only Life Worth Living; Country Love Is the Only Love Worth Giving,” works. It’s a creepfest, but you revealed it so well, so classy. In “Barn,” one of the longest in the collection, and one of my favorites: More violence here, more shady familial ties, more potential soap opera. But you lend a dignity to it. I think that’s amazing. Your control, your restraint. How you can temper these kinds of situations, and how you’re still able to use language that makes people – me! – breathless.

In the [too-McSweeney’s-ously titled for my tastes] “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy for Moral and Ethical Practice in the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above,” an inventer then businessman then professor spends his life answering the unending question of sadness. “How do you feel when the person who made you the saddest feels sad?” he had printed on his “Karmic Boomerangs.” Does she want my sadness? Mr. Ananthanarayanan eventually asks in a letter.

Ah, connections, misconnections, miscommunications. And intimacy. And sadness. Let us not forget about sadness.

I leave you with your own words, from “What We Believe But Cannot Praise:” I felt lonely, and in full possession of my loneliness. It was the first time I had owned anything of value. Perhaps I should start thinking this more, feeling this more. Cradling something so potentially destructive, yet working to be diligent in controlling it, in holding it at length, holding it up to the light. Knowing I can create something from it, something that’ll be more beautiful than any sadness that had borne it.

We’ll see, Mr. Greenman. But thank you for your time. Thank you, too, for your book. I thought it was perfect. I guess those two sentences preceding this one was all I really wanted to say. So. Take care. I wish you,

All the best,

Sasha Martinez

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12 comments

  1. Your preliminary love for Greenman already had me check one of his books (a circle is a balloon…) out of the library, and now it looks like I’ll have to get my hands on this one too. I definitely stalk your currently reading list for new suggestions for my insanely large TBR pile… where do you even come up with all these books? Anyway I just wanted to thank you for that, and I’m very excited to dig into one of Greenman’s collection as soon as I get the chance.

    1. In the interest of full disclosure, haha, this is the first book of Greenman’s I have ever read. In fact, I have never heard of him before now. So just a little word of caution that even though I can shout from the rooftops re finding this perfect book, I know nothing about all his others, ahaha.

      In his interviews, he mentioned that this book was noticeably different from all his other books, and that the book he wrote before this one was the most similar to What He’s Poised to Do. :]

  2. If a book inspires you to write this kind of love letter, I had better add it to my wishlist right now.

  3. Mikaela · · Reply

    Lovely review, Sasha! :-)

  4. I bought this book on the basis of how you sprang into rhapsody after reading it. I look forward to singing the same praises after :)

    1. I hope it hits you as gloriously as it hit me. If not, well, oops, haha.

  5. I’ve never heard of this book before. But I’m always out looking for books on sadness. And I like short stories.

    1. As I’ve said elsewhere, this book has revived my faith in short fiction. :] This is the best short story collections I’ve ever read. I hope you take the time to read it when you come across it. :]

  6. [...] to read at the right time, feel in my bones that a book was written for me, or just launch into an as earnest-as-I-could-manage blathering love letter to the text [and the [...]

  7. [...] What He’s Poised to Do, by Ben Greenman [...]

  8. I just had to come back to this post, to tell you how madly in love I am with this book. It is now filled with my notes, parallelisms of the characters’ and mine. Maybe I am also a sad person, but I shall not deny.

    The Hunter and the Hunted is my most favorite of all. When I finished the first story, I think “Hey, it’s hard to top that one.” And then I correct myself because every story jumps out of the page and grips my little heart whilst reading.

    Just beautiful.

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