Who knew there was so much fiction set in Portland? I’ve read three in as many months, now, and each of the published this year: Portland Noir, Portland Queer, and now Jon Raymond’s haunting and memorable Livability.
While the author may not have set out to make the Pacific Northwest its own character, the moodiness of the region infuses everything. Whether Jon takes you to the coast, the Lloyd Center, to a Clackamas burb or a baronial Lake Oswego residence, there are the clouds, the towering trees, the encroaching vegetation, the sense that – as Ken Kesey once put it – the landscape doesn’t really need you.
All the stories are affecting (each of these nine stories delineate people who are painfully in touch with their feelings yet unable to share those feelings with others), but a standout for me was the overtly comic “Young Bodies,” about an avaricious store clerk who returns to the scene of her crime only to be trapped in the Lloyd Center overnight. Already a double-outsider (her parents are Russian immigrants and she buses into work every day from 135th & Stark), she finds herself turned into a phantom, whose only way to pass the time is to spy on the janitors and security cops.
The collection’s masterpiece is the final story – a novella really – entitled “Train Choir.” This is the piece that Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt adapted into the movie Wendy and Lucy , which the Reichardt also directed. As it turns out, the movie sticks amazingly close to its original, except in one key respect.
Spoiler alert: here I must warn you, if you haven’t seen or read the story, do not read on unless you’re willing to have the plotline’s impact blunted for you. K?
For people who were profoundly affected by the movie, as I was, it’s a shock to read Jon Raymond’s story and find that it’s even bleaker than his own adaptation. Whether this is a concession to our need for likeable characters at the movies or what, I don’t know. But there is no redemption in “Train Choir.” Verna (Wendy, in the film) does not tell Lucy she’s coming back for her; almost against her own will, she makes a decision, and seems to know without articulating it that she’s come to a break in her life. There was life before that moment; there will be life, such as it is, after. And it's one of many such breaks that ultimately become a life story, but that doesn’t help Verna at that critical moment.
It’s as existential as a Beckett play, and you understand, as the reader, that while Verna is about to start an entirely new existence, she’s completely shed the old one, and feels none too good about. It’s a somber, despairing note on which to end a book. The other stories don’t do this; hence Mr. Raymond’s parting moments are unsettling indeed, and almost seem to posit another book altogether – a brave new world of diminished expectations.
If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested to hear why you think the author entitled it Livability. I have my theories – but yours may be different.