Before and After
Stories from New York
edited by Thomas Beller
Mr. Beller's Neighborhood ($13)
by Thomas Haley
Novelist and essay-writer Thomas Beller had for a couple of years been asking people to write to his website (mrbellersneighborhood.com) and express themselves on New York events, locations, and people of personal importance to them. Beller was just preparing to compile his favorites from the site into a print volume when the terrorist attacks occurred, rendering the project, in his own words, "exhausting and beside the point. "Almost immediately after the Twin Towers fell, though, the website began receiving hits again, and Beller realized that the material his project had gathered and was still gathering was "not only relevant, but possessed of an urgency that it hadn't had before." Before and After: Stories from New York is Beller's selection of the most relevant and most urgent of these very short personal essays, divided into sections labeled simply "Before" and "After."
Many of the "Before" essays are, perhaps surprisingly, sharp and resonant; they do not suffer from the sense of triviality or naivete one might expect of pre-terrorism musings on the city. Maura Kelly's "Kissing the Cab Driver" is a sweet and gritty account of her terminally failed New Year's Eves, focusing on the Millennium's Eve that culminates with the desperate title event. In "The Parakeet Book," Josh Kramer tries in vain to train a bird given him by his now ex-girlfriend. "Johanna gave me the birds because she thought they would be therapeutic for me," he writes, and the detached and helpless curiosity he feels while watching the parakeet take flight and slam into his living room wall will be familiar to anyone who has suffered the end of a relationship.
Whereas the "Before" essays tend towards calmer reflection, the "After" pieces are turbulent meditations and frantic recountings. Bryan Charles, working on the seventieth floor of World Trade Tower 2, sits at his desk reading a Kurt Cobain biography when he hears "a series of muffled booms.Š A man from accounting named Leo Kirby started yelling. He didn't stop." Joseph Lieber, an ex-New Yorker living in Boston, wrestles helplessly with his frustration at being so far away from the city he still thinks of as home. He writes: "From the moment I learned of the attack, I felt an urgent need to be home, home in the city of my bones, home among my peopleŠ. I slumped down over a kitchen chair, feeling the enormity of our loss, the enormity of my loss."
And certainly one of the most compelling issues raised by Beller's collection is that fine line between "our loss" and "my loss." Despite the scale and reach of September's paradigm-shifting events, the collection's "After" essays are no less introspective than those under the "Before" title. The self-absorption of the pieces does not make them trite, though--in fact, the best of these essays remind us that ultimately we suffer tragedy alone, drawing from our own store of memories and experiences to make personal sense of things.
Despite several essays that are not themselves particularly good, Before and After is a stirring and impressive catalog of voices. With a few exceptions--Philip Lopate, Luc Sante, and Jeanette Winterson among them--the writers here are not terribly well known, if known at all. Indeed, the sincerity and authenticity of Beller's selections are in part the result of their shirking the kind of "literary" writing generally found in such short pieces of prose. There is no mistaking, in other words, that language is here at the service of the subject; the book is so saturated with vivid humanity, with nightmarish specificity, with the undeniable realities of ashes, concrete, smoke, paper, and tears, that even the weaker pieces raise the questions that will continue to haunt us for some time.