Among the Ten Thousand Things: A Novel
“Among the Ten Thousand Things is praise-worthy. Stunningly written . . .”
Among the ten thousand things I did this summer was Julia Pierpont’s first novel. It’s fun to read an author’s entrance into novel-hood, imagining their angst at the introduction of prose and people to a new audience of readers. It’s hard not to want to please the new novelist with a fountain of praise.
Among the Ten Thousand Things is praise-worthy. Stunningly written, it has all the makings of a breakthrough book except for some unsolved riddles in form and flow.
The book is the story of a marriage gone terribly wrong with the added digital twist that only an Internet affair can create—a long string of racy emails delivered by a scorned lover to the wife and family of the man at the center of the triangle.
Artist Jack Shanley has cheated on his second wife and plunged the family into an emotional crisis when his ex-lover decides to dump all the evidence of the tawdry affair on the children, ages 15 and 11, who immediately show their mom, Deb, a former ballet dancer, the paper trail of their dad’s misdeeds. It’s a steamy beginning, set in Manhattan.
Where the novel becomes a modern day Shakesperian tragedy is around how the kids handle the revelations of the affair, which animates the first half of the book. Pierpont handles that minefield with inspiring insights into the minds of young people. The 11 year old, Kay, is angry and grief-stricken when she opens the box of sordid emails and decides to share them with her older brother. “It was the smallest decision Kay could think to make, smaller even than doing nothing, which felt like deceit. Showing Simon would be like showing herself, because he was theirs too.”
Simon, age 15, is shocked not only by the contents but by what he perceives as his mother’s muted response. “She didn’t even look at most of it. That was something Simon couldn’t believe, how his mother didn’t pour over every page. As furious as he was with his father, he was furious with her too, for reasons he couldn’t explain yet that had something to do with how her reaction was not enough, not nearly enough.”
The temptation of children to heap blame on themselves for parental problems is something Pierpont writes about in a knowing and tender way. She also aptly describes parental self-doubt. Deb is bewildered at how to explain the affair to her children, and like all parents thinks she has not handled the situation well. “Sometimes a married person meets someone new, someone they think is nice, or exciting, and sometimes they’ll make a mistake,” she explains. . . .”But it doesn’t mean anything. And it isn’t about you.”
Later she questions her own explanation. “Where she’d gone wrong, it was just a word, how could she have known. What she should have said: It doesn’t mean everything.”
Like Rashomon, the novel places the reader into every character’s mind leaving differing interpretations of the same events. Even Jack, who admits to the affair, has his own particular spin on it. “The girl was a channel that let him be a better man at home. Like a soldier, I do on the outside what I need to keep the inside safe.”
Beyond sex, infidelity, marriage, and parenting, the novel is, at its core, about the mundane modalities of life—the steady drumbeat of ordinary living even as extraordinary things happen. It is really about how small our lives are when stacked against the enormity of a world filled with thousands of things and people.
Jack contends with the failure of his marriage and yet muses about how his wife is still in contact with his old college roommate—a seemingly insignificant fact that reminds him of life’s shortcoming and our tentative place in it. “Another of the small things that alienated him, in increments, from his own life, like coming home to find the furniture rearranged. Like the time the corner bagel shop had closed without warning. . . . He was being subtracted from everything, like a character made to look at the world, how life would go on, after he died.”
Even young Kay becomes aware of human irrelevance. “The kitchen table does not disappear because the room is empty and the doors all closed, and other people’s lives go on without you in them.” When she considers protesting against a family trip without her dad, she thinks, “that would have been one way for life to go, of the thousands of ways it could splinter and fly off . . .”
So here’s the irony of this novel. In its depiction of our own mundane, slightly tentative lives, the book becomes mundane and a bit dull. At some point the book goes into slow motion—more hand-wringing than action. The best symbol of that passiveness is the repeated reference to a clock in the kitchen over the stove that nobody re-sets. “The glowing green clock on the oven fell an hour behind.”
Readers will either adore this book or complain about it. Or both. You have to know that, at some point, it will fall off a narrative cliff, and leave you dangling. There are some sharp turns and U-shaped arcs that befuddle and confuse along with the subtle reminder that even amidst tragedy and trauma, holidays come and go. “Halloween. Reese’s wrappers and the wicks of silver Kisses papered the streets like leaves. . . . New Year. Snowflakes looked like skeletons of something else. . . . The oven clock became wrong again. Somebody finally fixed it, so that the next November it fell an hour ahead.”
Among The Ten Thousand Things is a worthy beginning to a new author’s journey and it will have its fans and followers. The good thing about debuts is that they are often followed by even stronger performances. For now, the novel is a good story but just a story among ten thousand things.