Collections of Nothing
William Davies King
University Of Chicago Press, 2008
160 pp., $22.00
Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore
"To Collect Is to Write a Life"
This is one nice writer. King writes of his collection of large boulders, "In the spring, lush green would arabesque salty gray. By late summer, the grass would turn sharp and sallow amid the seemingly liquid rocks, and huge wolf spiders would finish the brutal composition with no–nonsense webs." In another place, he writes of a horrible teacher before whom he feels himself "turning hazy, then opaque, an early–onset cataract." And on every page we sense the presence of the man behind the words, a man we could imagine traveling at some cost to visit, to stand and ooh and ah politely at his 900 cereal boxes, to exclaim, "I never knew there were so many kinds of tuna fish." But it would be the man and not his things, that we had come to see.
Finally, as King approaches his conclusion, he makes the reader understand that something hangs now in the balance, and it matters what the outcome is. The stakes are high. We have been treated to a fine and funny, charmingly written and deeply felt portrayal of the human heart. King's is a masterful collection of the different kinds of longing that we know, his world one full of albums waiting to be pasted into, containers wanting something to contain.
King shows us need that feels as though it might well have been crafted with fulfillment meant to follow, in some very satisfactory way. By the end of this little book we have reached a state of readiness to be told the answer. Tension mounts. It really does. King lets the reader be a player. He asks us what we think. It is a conversation, an important meeting, and we're sitting at a table in the emptiest of rooms, waiting to see what we will see when the door is opened.
Will the answer be as tall a giant as the question?
Can redemption sate the thirst that longing is?
Then the final chapter. My disappointment is immense. Oh no. Not that. Don't tell us that's the answer. It is as though we've traveled a thousand arduous miles only to find we have been walking, sometimes crawling, in a perfect circle. Don't tell us that what we need is finer stuff or finer people who will vow to tend the stuff which we've already got.
I read the chapter one more time. A good thing too. I realize finally that it is a wishful ending after all. We have been taken on the quest, the bumpy horseback ride with dubious companions in every sort of weather, so purposefully, that we can envision the Holy Grail in bold detail, we can all but smell the incense of sweet satisfaction when we find it, the end at long last found to be as perfect as our longing promised it would be.
And in the end we do come close, or closer anyway, to what will answer. We, like King, acquire. Acquire a thing or things, beautiful and costly, rich with meaning, things, and people too, and we lean hard into the ones who promise to collect with us, or sit beside us as we do. Forever. 'Til death do us part is what they say, but forever is what we hear.
Collections of nothing fool no one. They allow us to know need. All his life King has collected only those things which other people throw away. He, so close to the pure heart of the search, with no illusion that his things have value, makes us sense that looking is the worthy thing. Then, finally, value comes to him, as jewelry and reproductions, as offspring and lovers, often do.
And so the book ends with a question that it doesn't ask. These treasures, these exquisite old photographs, these diamond and ruby rings, our angel children and the grown–ups who swear they are determined they will always love us … are they it? Or could it be that they are hints and recollections sent to make us just a little bit suspicious sometimes late at night, causing us to wonder at certain strange, not unfamiliar hopes that come as we are falling off to sleep, all tired out from a love–blessed day, that make us wonder, are they it, or do they point the way.
Linda McCullough Moore lives and writes in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she writes short stories, soon to be collected.
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