After the Parade
By Lori Ostlund
Scribner Books — September 2015
ISBN: 9781476790107 — Hardcover — 340 pp.
Normally I’d introduce a book and its author, summarize its plot with mention of key characters, and only then go into interpretations, analysis, and critique. For Lori Ostlund’s After the Parade, I’m actually going to do things a bit in reverse.
After the Parade is a novel about emotion, about empathy. All literature evokes feelings of one sort or another in a reader, but for Lori Ostlund’s debut novel that seems its primary, if not sole purpose. Some minimalist, and experimental novels simply go for atmosphere, creating a distinct mood and emotions through setting and language, but leaving out all pieces of plot or character development. After the Parade also builds atmosphere, but goes a bit further to tie that atmosphere into characters and events so that the reader connects deeply with the cast.
Nonetheless, After the Parade still shies away from any grand plot, moving slowly to reveal a framework of history that has shaped the protagonist to be what he is, where he is at. Rather than using character development, the novel becomes a character study – both of its protagonist and its secondary characters. The development comes for the reader, as one discovers who these people are, sees what has shaped their life or kept them stagnant. That reader development is the empathy.
This sort of focus for literature normally, I feel, falls into the short story form. And prior to this debut novel, Ostlund had a reasonably successful and highly praised collection of short stories, The Bigness of the World. Originally published by the University of Georgia Press, and re-released after her novel by Scribner – won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. Stories from it appeared in yearly prestigious “Best of…” anthologies. Here, with After the Parade, Ostlund has really taken elements that literary short fiction do best and placed them into the novel framework, interconnecting many episodes of a central character’s life into a larger whole. While other authors have done this in ways that leave the short stories feeling each distinct, though interconnected, Ostlund fully molds that short fiction focus into a novel so that they can’t easily be separated back out.
The plot summary of After the Parade is relatively easy to make: In his late forties, Aaron ponders what he is doing in his life. How he got there, what he wants. He leaves his older partner, Walter, after two decades together and moves to San Francisco, teaching English as a second language. There, he misses Walter, but comes to accept he may not have ever really loved the older man. Considering his future and his still uninspiring present, Aaron looks at the lives of his neighbors and acquaintances and faces memories of his past: a near absent mother, an abusive father who suddenly dies during a town parade, a religious aunt.
The atmosphere evoked by the novel and its character study is one of loneliness, being rudderless despite connections and interactions to others. Again, a very common theme in modern short fiction. This makes After the Parade a very melancholy novel, though balanced by Ostlund’s beautiful, hopeful prose. Through Aaron and secondary characters Ostlund explores how much of a person’s life is formed from one’s own agency, and how the choices to be actively engaged in one’s direction – or not engaged at all – plays into this. It explores the ‘coming-of-age’ theme as not a once-in-a-lifetime defining moment that separates existence into the ignorant before-time and the after-time of clarity, but as a constantly recurring experience.
If you are a fan of short literary fiction, then Ostlund’s novel is likely something that you will appreciate. For me, I would have enjoyed more in terms of character development and plot. The loneliness and melancholy and Aaron’s personality can get frustratingly angering. But, it did also make empathize a lot more with this ‘type’ of person. If you didn’t see this book when it appeared now five years back, and it sounds up your alley, go find a copy. There are also plenty of other positive or balanced reviews out there that you can look into, saying wonderful points I agree with, so am not going to just rehash in detail.
In a related aside to close: I recall seeing news of a study several years ago stating that readers of literary fiction scored higher on tests of empathy than others. The study claimed this was true for literary, but not genre, fiction. In the Sci Fi/Fantasy field I saw angry mention of this – or a similar – study a month or so ago. Another attempt to claim ‘genre’ is not good enough. I don’t see it that way. They are different, and that’s fine. Genre fiction CAN be written in a way that emphasizes empathy with characters to focus solely on that. Most doesn’t, so it’s not going to have the same effect as what ‘literary’ holds up as en vogue. Read both, read all varieties. When the mood strikes. I hope to have a chance to read Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World collection, and perhaps any future novels from her.