I thoroughly enjoyed Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth. In it, she tells the story of an extramarital affair and the blended family of six children that results. The stepsiblings mostly live on opposite coasts except for summer vacations when they become a tribe, wandering around the Virginia countryside.
Patchett’s books tend to be about groups of people who are thrown together and form a community — her best-known work, Bel Canto, fits this description well — but in this case, the bonding happens early and then we skip back and forth through time to see how deep and strong the connections between the siblings and stepsiblings are. I felt like I knew the characters so well that when I read, “Teresa had the feeling that if she lied about anything, Caroline would walk over and poke her in the stomach,” it made me laugh out loud, thinking, “That’s so Caroline!”
Very minor spoiler alert: “Commonwealth” turns out to be also the title of a book within the story. A critically acclaimed story of … a blended family of six children. There’s a weird meta-moment when I wondered if I was holding Commonwealth, “Commonwealth” or some hybrid of the two in my hands.
The internal book “Commonwealth” tells the story of a tragic event that is alluded to throughout Commonwealth. Naturally, family members are upset that their personal tragedy has become fodder for fiction, and eventually a movie adaptation.
That’s just the price you pay for knowing a writer, I thought. Because I’ve had that experience.
Kelly Link writes fantastical short stories. They are literary and full of odd turns, like villages that live in purses or girls who are so rich their parents buy them pyramids. Her latest book, Get In Trouble, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2016.
The first time I heard the name Kelly Link, I had drawn her name in the game Assassin. I was a freshman at Columbia College back when New York City was so scary and dangerous that no one would send their child there, so I had a chance at admission. For the game, I had three days to track Kelly down and shoot her with a plastic dart gun. I found her dorm room and had a brief glimpse of her before she hid inside a closet while her roommate shooed me out of the room.
The next year, we ended up living down the hall from each other and shared a dorm kitchen. Our junior year, Kelly studied abroad, and in our senior year, we hung out together a bit.
After college, however, our friendship bloomed, probably because we both liked writing and so we became regular correspondents back when people sent letters back and forth. (Funny, I don’t feel that old.)
When I started graduate school for art history at Harvard, Kelly was pursuing an MFA in writing in North Carolina. We would talk on the phone occasionally, and one day I called her up with a great idea. I knew she wrote odd, literary science fiction, and I had a great first line for a story for her: “Most of my friends are two-thirds water.”
Kelly ended up writing a story called “Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water.” That was not the first line of the story, but in it, an Asian character named Jak suggests that the sentence would make a good opening line.
[By the way, my Twitter handle is @jakcheng. Just saying.]
The next part of her story is adapted from something I told her about my life. I had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and took the subway home to Porter Square one night. The only other person in my train car was a young woman. We both got out at the same stop and went up the seemingly endless elevators up to street level.
This was right after I had moved from New York and I still had the impression that empty streets were dangerous. In a few more weeks I would figure out that empty streets in Cambridge are mostly just empty, but at the time, my urban paranoia antenna was on high alert.
So I kept this woman in sight. If I was going to be mugged, I wanted someone to hear my cries for help and fetch the police.
After a block of so, I suddenly realized that the woman seemed to be walking faster and that she was probably scared of me.
This was a little disconcerting.
I watched as she kept walking in the direction of my apartment building.
Not wanting to scare her, I changed my route. I took the shortcut that I never took at night, the one down the darker street where my roommate’s friend had been recently robbed.
A dog barked and lunged at me from behind a fence and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I hustled down the block.
Finally, I got to my well-lit street.
Somehow, the woman was there again. She turned and saw me, and ran. She must have already been moving fairly quickly because I had taken that shortcut and jogged half a block.
When she got to my apartment building, I could hardly believe the sight of her unlocking the lobby door. I walked slowly up the stairs and when I got to my floor, I heard the click of the door across the hall.
I had accidentally stalked a new neighbor.
Kelly thought this was hilarious, knowing me as a generally harmless individual.
In the next few years, Kelly moved to Somerville, and then I moved back to New York. Kelly wrote stories, and got them published, and some of them won prizes. She got a book contract. I was excited for her.
It was while we were both in the Boston area that she told me about this story that she had written. It would eventually be published in her first story collection Stranger Things Happen and she thought I should read it first.
Reading about yourself as a character in a story is an odd experience. I understand why Ann Patchett’s characters were upset.
After introducing the character of Jak, the narrator tells the story of how he accidentally followed a woman home. Wait, I thought, that’s my story. But… what was I going to do with it? In fact, the way Kelly wrote it, it sounded a lot less creepy than my telling it ever would.
There was more. Kelly wrote about my ex-girlfriend, and my working in Turkey as an archaeologist. Kelly wrote about how she chose to visit me the weekend my ex-girlfriend got married rather than go to the wedding; we got drunk together and watched the Princess Bride.
There was a lot that was true, but then there was a lot that was half-true. Like, the fact that Kelly brought her boyfriend with her the weekend of the ex’s wedding. In the story, the narrator lives with her dad, who has a great fondness for Jak; I don’t know her dad well, but have a great affection for Kelly’s mom.
And then there was the stuff that… I mentioned that Kelly writes odd stories, right? Well, in this one, Jak meets his neighbor, a blonde, and they fool around. It turns out that the blonde neighbor may be an alien.
I can neither confirm or deny this allegation.
There’s also a number of things that Kelly predicted with eerie specificity. She changed the location of Jak’s story to Manhattan and she describes the exact building I would later move into. She also predicted that I would marry a blonde (although, possibly other friends who knew my track record for dating could have predicted that).
This all happened years ago. The book was published in 2001, the year my wife and I married. I know my wife read a number of the stories in the book, but for some reason, I don’t remember ever talking to her about the story where I am a character. For some reason I felt a bit shy about it.
These days, I try to see Kelly when she’s in town. I don’t write many letters anymore, but I do hear from her on Twitter. One was in response to my rating her books on Goodreads.com:
@jakcheng i don’t think you’re allowed to give me five stars on goodreads, by the way
even if you aren’t in any of these stories
— skully ink (@haszombiesinit) May 27, 2016
In June, I wrote:
Guy on Seattle LINK train reading @haszombiesinit‘s Get In Trouble. Coincidence?
— Jack Cheng (@jakcheng) June 23, 2016
@jakcheng owe u an email as soon as i’m back home again. also HELLO FROM THE SAME COAST
hope u told him u were not a character in that col
— skully ink (@haszombiesinit) June 23, 2016
@haszombiesinit I approach all strangers to tell them I am not a character in their book. That’s why I always get a seat on the train
— Jack Cheng (@jakcheng) June 23, 2016
@jakcheng lots and lots of seats, i’m guessing
— skully ink (@haszombiesinit) June 23, 2016
It’s fun thinking of myself as a character in a book. There’s a Will Ferrell movie with that premise called “Stranger Than Fiction” — the title sounds so much like Stranger Things Happen that I’m afraid it’s actually about me and Kelly.
And then, last week, I got this Tweet from Kelly’s husband, Gavin Grant:
Hey @jakcheng did you hear “Most of My Friends Are 2/3 Water” on @snapjudgment?https://t.co/6RbVBJtWs0
— Am Pretty Horrified (@smallbeerpress) October 3, 2016
Snap Judgment is an NPR podcast produced at WNYC. I thought it was sort of like The Moth with better production values and music, but apparently they do fictional stories, too.
Aside from the fact that the prose became a play, the characters became African-American. The alien neighbor is still a blonde, though, and is described as looking like Beyonce.
Listening to it was weird. I wrote to tell Gavin my reaction: “Like hearing someone else tell a dream you had.”
Or maybe it’s like a painting from a photocopy of a photograph taken long ago — an Andy Warhol portrait. While listening to the story, I had a hard time concentrating, even as I traced details back to my own life, or Kelly’s story.
Honestly, it’s been two decades since that walk from the subway and the short story has been around for almost that long. Just reading the story I have to focus to separate my memory from the fiction, and the radio version holds up another lens to that.
I’ve heard recent brain science that tells us that memories are not storage banks; memories are stories we tell ourselves anew, each time we are “remembering.” When someone else tells your story more clearly, with more sympathy and warmth than you tell it yourself, is it any wonder that their version can seem more real?
But my wife doesn’t look like Beyonce.
I’ve written some fiction, never published.
I took classes and I read books about writing. One thing that became clear to me as I read and wrote is that every character comes from the author. Aspects that you hate about yourself may inform the villain, just as your best conceived self may be the hero. But even the sidekick, the bystander, the MacGuffin — everyone is an aspect of the author.
That’s one reason I love Ann Patchett’s work. In her non-fiction, she makes clear that she has plenty of faults and has made many mistakes. In her novels, though, what appeals most to me is how kind she is to every character. They may be in conflict, they may make mistakes and blurt out secrets, but she understands each one, she knows why they act the way they do — she knows why Caroline would poke an old lady in the stomach for lying. If they are all aspects of the author, then Ann Patchett is a well-adjusted human being who has learned to live with her own faults.
All characters are aspects of their authors. That’s the weird thing about Jak in “Most of My Friends…” He may have started out as me, but he’s not anymore. He’s part of Kelly. Maybe he’s what Kelly thought of me at that time, but even so, that could never really be me.
Jak has charisma. Kelly told me that after she turned the story in, one of her teachers wanted to meet me. I could only be a disappointment, I thought. I’m not sure the character Jak would have thought the same thing.
In Commonwealth, a movie is eventually made of the book “Commonwealth” and a trio of characters goes to the theater together. They don’t get through the whole screening before one of them shouts, “Enough,” and they evacuate.
Kelly didn’t use any of my stories that I considered secret, or personal or a tragedy. She told a funny story better than I could. I’ve always been kind of proud that I inspired that story in some way. I always tell myself it’s because I gave her the title, but it’s not. I mean, it’s not the words I gave her, it was because we were friends and I gave her some words. The act, not the object.
After seeing the movie version of their lives, the characters in Commonwealth decamp to the beach. “None of those people were us,” they reassure each other.
None of those people were us.