Summer Book Club Week 2: The Chairs are Where The People Go

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chairs2Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? was one of my Top 10 Books of 2012.  I described that book as “exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring…self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.” The Chairs are Where the People Go is an entirely different sort of book. It still sounds like Sheila Heti, but it isn’t, really; it’s her friend Misha Glouberman, channeled through Heti’s typing hands.  It’s neither exhilarating nor befuddling; it might be inspiring, but I’m not sure.  It’s not self-absorbed, nor is it miniature, really, and its scope is – medium-sized.

In the introduction, Heti says that she finds Glouberman so interesting that she tried to write a novel about him, and failed, because her imaginary Misha just didn’t measure up to the real one.  So instead, she decided to spend a lot of time with him, ask him a bunch of questions, and transcribe his answers.  The result is this book, a collection of mini-essays on topics ranging from charades to neighbourhood associations to monogamy to absenteeism.

Some of it is boring.  I studied improv as a teenager, and so should probably be intrigued by Glouberman’s insights into how to improvise correctly, but I’m not.  Performance, as art and as metaphor, is the subject of a number of chapters, and I feel that it wears thin. However, the good thing about brief chapters is that if you don’t care for this one, the next one could be (and in this case often is) a nice surprise.  Let’s look at a couple of observations that I like.

I had certain ideas about what kind of person my girlfriend might be.  I met Margaux and I was pretty fascinated by her.  She’s a remarkably unusual person…I was with her for a while and I kept thinking, This is so not like the person I’d imagined. And at the same time I thought, once the relationship got at all serious, Well, I’m kind of stuck, because there’s no way in the world that I’m going to be able to find someone who’s sort of like Margaux but better, because there’s no one like Margaux.

Or this:

Margaux and I [watched] some terrible monologues being performed at some club in New York.  I was so angry and outraged that they thought that it was fair to make the demand, I’m going to talk now and you all have to shut up and listen.  I told Margaux, You have to be really sure that what you are saying is worthwhile and good before you ask that of people. She thought I was wrong…If the contract is that you have to be absolutely certain that it’s going to be worth people’s while, nobody would do anything…I think she’s probably right, but I can’t help feeling this way.

These little moments where you stop and realize “I’ve thought things like this but didn’t even know I was thinking them” are masterful.  They sneak up on you, like a neighbourhood cat who’s always around, but whom you don’t notice until he’s sitting in a different driveway.  Glouberman is opinionated but self-questioning, and that’s my favourite sort of person, so hanging out with him and listening to him hold forth on random stuff is…fine.

One difficulty is that the back cover and some other reviews I’ve read describe this book as funny, but I don’t find it funny at all.  And I think I’ve figured out why not.  Glouberman is the straight man, and the world around him is the funny guy.  I think his serious, rather naive tone is what people find amusing.  For example, in a chapter on preparing a bar audience for a performance, Glouberman explains,

One of the very last things I do when I give people instructions on how to enjoy the show is that I encourage them to shush other people if they are talking.  I give them some different techniques for doing this.  I tell them if they want to be direct and aggressive, they can turn around an shush the person angrily, or if they prefer a more passive-aggressive style, they can cover their mouths with their hands so no one will know who did the shushing….Inevitably during any show in a bar, people eventually do talk, and instead of me having to reprimand them from the stage in some authoritarian way…a number of people in the audience do the shushing….As a performer on stage, this saves you the terrible indignity of having to ask the audience every five minutes to simmer down and listen to you.

Is this funny?  I suspect it’s funny.  It isn’t funny to me.  Why?  In my life, I’m the straight man.  (I happen to be married to the funniest person alive, so this works out pretty well.) What Gloubernan’s describing here is, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent idea.  It sounds like something I’d do if I thought of it.  In fact, I might even start using this technique in my classes so that students will shut each other up.  This has been happening throughout my reading; I think, “Well, sure.  That’s a good idea,” or, “Yes, exactly.  Isn’t that how everyone sees it?” And then I think, “Why am I reading these incredibly ordinary thoughts?”

Glouberman is a lot more intelligent and articulate and experienced than I am.  He does a lot of brave things that I would never do, like teaching classes in charades or becoming a neighbourhood residents’ rights activist.  However, his view of the world is more or less mine, and  he is, much like me, very serious about his view of the world.  This may be entertaining to people who find him odd, but is not terribly entertaining to me, because I don’t find him odd at all.

I’m 115 pages in, and I feel like I could take or leave the last 60, but I have the sense that maybe something I don’t expect is going to happen, so I may follow through.  Have you read this book?  Would you recommend I finish it?  Have you encountered any of Heti’s or Glouberman’s other work?  If so, what did you think?

If not, what are you reading this week?

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14 responses

  1. I am still reading YA books for work. This week I am reading Princess Label Maker by Tom Angleberger. The Origami Yoda series is about middle school kids who are led by Dwight, who is probably autistic, but understands much more than his friends realize. The books are sweet and students love them, especially Star Wars fans.

  2. Still struggling through The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I think I’ve decided that I’m truly not cut out for epic fantasy. I want my fantasy in smaller doses and without all the political superstructure that Sanderson writes. The man is a genius, I admit, but I have a hard time staying focused when there’s so much intrigue and so little action.
    The book reminds me somewhat of Dune by Ray Bradbury but with more convoluted histories and philosophies. Everyone knows Dune is epic and classic, but it took me awhile to wade through it and it is half the length of this Sanderson novel.
    Meanwhile, I did finish two subpar self-pubbed YA fantasies not really worth mentioning. If you’re on Goodreads, you can find my reviews there.
    Happy reading everyone!

    • Sharon: I’m with you on epic fantasy; not my bag. I think Dune is by Frank Herbert, though, no? Or is there another one? I read the first book around the time the movie came out (I was a teenager) and that was enough for me. I do like children’s fantasy (Narnia, Harry Potter, Hunger Games etc.), but a lot of complicated world-building loses me pretty quickly.

  3. I have not read this book. I do follow your assumption about taking or leaving it and how you say it’s boring in parts. I like that you shared excerpts that coincide with your feelings on this book. I helps set the scene for what you’re saying and allows me to form my own opinion. I’ve also never read these authors but have heard good things about Glouberman from people with similar tastes. Although I find no shame in ditching a book when it’s not going to keep interest, I’m hoping you’ll finish it. At the very least you’re getting through it on behalf of me :)

    I didn’t write about my reading life this week as I usually do on Mondays. It’s my last week of school and I focused on a relationship with a colleague and close friend instead. Today is the last day and I’m just a few hours away from a much deserved cocktail so I won’t be blogging the rest of today. \\

    I am still trucking through Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’m 35% in. Not that far but it’s a longer, richer story. Maybe a little too historical fiction and verbiage for my liking at times. Still I’m sticking with it. I’ll include a link of my tagged posts in regards to this story. I sometimes write when I’m inspired by the story on Mondays.

    http://butlerbin2013.wordpress.com/tag/life-after-life/

    • BB: well, for you, maybe I’ll power on through! I have a big stack of other books I want to get to, though, so I will have to prioritize before they all go back to the library. I would in turn encourage you to finish LAL, depsite its challenges; it is worth it in my opinion.

  4. I am reading a Person novel, which is the longest Iranian novel. It is in ten Volume and 2,836 pages. So inspiring, hard to put it off and many different characters. It’s “Kelidar” by Mahmood Dowlat-abadi.

  5. > I’m 115 pages in, and I feel like I could take or leave the last 60,
    > but I have the sense that maybe something I don’t expect is going to happen,
    > so I may follow through. Would you recommend I finish it?

    The rest of the book is pretty much more of the same. A lot of people really like the last chapter, so maybe skip ahead and read that one.

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