The Merits of Loneliness
In After the Parade Lori Ostlund imbues life with poetry
When I completed After the Parade, I had a notion of who I would meet when I rode my bike to Zendo to interview its author. If first impressions speak at all, I was right. Lori Ostlund was insightful and inquisitive—her expressions were serious, her words kind. “Many of my students think of writing as an opportunity to exact a little revenge … [but] the writing process should transform that. When you sit down to write you have to consider why that character does the things they do. I've realized how important and overlooked kindness is,” Ostlund said at one point in our conversation when I asked her if it was exhausting to write her overwhelmingly lonely cast of characters with such empathy.
After the Parade is populated with outsiders. And they never triumph, at least not explicitly. There's Bernice, whose size prohibits her from achieving her full intellectual potential, Clarence, a dwarf with so-called “tusks” who is sequestered away in a rural farmhouse, an alcoholic fishermen, a detective with a poorly attended funeral and there's Aaron Englund, our main character. At the beginning of the novel, Aaron is leaving Albuquerque and with it, his partner of more than 20 years. “Aaron always lived with people who assert a certain influence [over him],” Ostlund explained. “His father who was cruel, his mother who was unhappy—and any time you live with someone unhappy it controls both of your lives—and then he goes immediately to Walter [his partner].” She begs the question, what would it be like to reach the age of 41 without knowing who you are, alone?
“The book is about loneliness, but … there are good ways to be lonely,” she continued. Ostlund, who received a graduate degree from UNM but left Albuquerque in 2005 for San Francisco, has returned as a visiting writer in the university's MFA program. The trajectory of her life, in many ways, is reflected in After the Parade. Like the book's main character, Ostlund left a small, Midwestern town for Albuquerque and later, moved even farther west, and like Aaron, she, too, was quiet. “I was really shy as a kid, so people always told me stories. I was a really good listener, I just didn't know how to talk … What's shaped me as a person are the stories that people have told me all my life. They changed who I was.” And like Aaron, Ostlund has found a voice.
“I give [my] characters some of myself,” Ostlund explained, “so I have that way in. [Aaron] has my birthday.” Yet, it is apparent that Aaron's heart-wrenching attention to detail, his collection of stories, and portions of his history, are Ostlund's too. “What makes people leave a small town and what makes other people stay?” she asked. “Why do some people crave the familiar even if it might be getting in their way? Of course, I was thinking about myself. Leaving for me was pretty easy, I was gay, and that helped push me on my way.” And so is Aaron. Almost out of obligation, though, I asked Ostlund about the how's and why's of writing a male character—what seemed to me a striking difference between the two. She answered by describing trying to write an essay about women who have written male characters. I began to wrack my mind for a few titles and came up with only one. “Men do it all the time, but it is so rare for a woman to write a male character … you can't think of him first as male, you have to think of him first as your character … if you write only the experience that you know, that's limiting.” Yet, it's clear that Ostlund knows her character intimately. She's written thousands of pages about him, only a small portion of which comprise the whole of After the Parade.
Ostlund has just as intimate a relationship with her prose. The words are strikingly deft and the metaphors are clean. Aaron, an ESL teacher, moves through tenses and hopeful clauses just as the book cycles through the past and present with agility. The revelations here are slow and require the perspective of age, like watching a movie as an adult and suddenly understanding all the jokes you didn't get as a child. Language is of a high priority and it is apparent that each sentence is constructed with care. “I just like sentences,” Ostlund explained, “I write slowly. If I don't like the sentence, I don't feel compelled to go on to the next one. Every sentence has been worked on hundreds of times.” Perhaps it is a product of Ostlund's love of poetry. More than once, her characters recite the opening lines of Richard Hugo's “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” (“You might come here Sunday on a whim./ Say your life broke down.”) They disparage Walt Whitman. “So much [of writing this] was trying to remember how I felt about things when I was young … the sense of wonder at seeing a set of twins, maybe … As an adult that feeling of wonder isn't something you move through your day with. I can remember the moment I discovered poetry. I remember those moments when I was a kid and I realized [that] the world is big.” For Aaron, and perhaps for Ostlund, too, the well crafted phrase, the beauty of a line or a sentence, is a doorway back to that feeling. For readers too, After the Parade provides ample poetry and an avenue back to wonder.