Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: Everything Beautiful Began After

July 28, 2011



Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After (Harper Perennial, July 2011) is a novel in six uneven parts: prologue, four books, and epilogue, taking readers on a similarly uneven journey through the lives of two main characters, George and Henry. It opens with the Beautiful, one learns, but quickly retreats into the past of the narrative and starts spinning a yarn about Rebecca, an artist-turned-stewardess (but really just a stewardess) who bumbles into our male leads in Athens. Her introduction, like George’s and again like Henry’s, is a sort of parallel progression in past-past and simple past tense. Van Booy is meticulous with the construction of his prose throughout all six segments of the story, with the overall scope of the narrative out of the reader’s view for quite some time. Chapter to chapter, though, his storytelling is relentlessly sequential:

“The next day was Sunday. Rebecca woke up and took a shower. Then she tidied her studio. When everything was put away, she felt like going out and decided to visit the narrow lanes of the Monastiraki flea market. She picked out a pair of plain white pants, but nothing so tight as to have Monastiraki’s thin-haired vendors barking at her to come over.”

As a love story, it is excellently deceptive at first, with romcom-esque red herrings and carefully timed revelations that juggle the trio for dozens of pages beyond expectations. The short, descriptive sentences sometimes hint at entire stories within their clauses and sometimes merely list hummus ingredients. There are some improbable events that lead to the eventual unification of the trio, but nothing that can’t be easily overlooked with some reasonable willing suspension of disbelief (it’s just funny when people meet people by hitting them with a car, and even funnier if the car is a Renault 16). The romance and comedy of the current events are, however, somewhat dampened by the constant barrage of memories from the characters’ maudlin pasts. The book could easily have been called Everything Horrible Happened First.

After the “after” for George and Henry in Athens, Book Two begins, along with the most surprising part of the book: 83 pages of second-person, present-tense rambling with a wad of images of letters between George and Henry written on hotel stationery and Western Union telegrams (think Dracula if Bram Stoker had owned a scanner).

Despite the incredibly unorthodox aspects of the new narrative, Van Booy’s prose doesn’t feel drugged or deranged, although it has an aspect of forced melancholy that is inescapable. A lighthearted reader or someone in an excellent mood might not have the patience or the curiosity to learn about what is happening to either character. As it happens, I was stuck on the el most of the time, so misery was inescapable either way. You, the reader, are told of an endless series of flights you’re boarding for no good reason (don’t worry, George and Henry are both independently wealthy), with no plan and no real objective and nothing real from which to escape. Lie back in your terrible coach seat and feel sorry for yourself as the airplane movie pummels you with regrets, dead babies, some suicide, and the haunting, unforgettable memory of an incredibly clever insult from a primary school gym bully. It doesn’t matter. Everything beautiful is yet to come; it says so right on the cover. End of Book Three.

Wallowed enough?

“When you awake, you know that you have to leave but you don’t know where to go.”

Guess not. You’re on your way through a journey of discovery now, I guess. Ninety more pages of second person and guess what? Rebecca was sort of a crappy person, and not all that dedicated to art, either. Her mother was crazy, so it all makes sense. Time to go home. There’s some second-person future tense thrown in there to boot. Everyone you’ve ever known has died of some embarrassing disease or horrible addiction. You don’t know your wife’s name because she’s a woman and they’re all interchangeable. Your dog ate your favorite cufflinks. You have toenail AIDS. It’s AIDS, but only for your toes.

Book Five clears the air, clears the memory, and makes readers forget that there were 170 pages of experimental prose between segments. It’s a master stroke on Van Booy’s part: first, telling readers that something terrible will happen but that it will be OK; second, tricking them into forgetting the all-important after; and finally, whisking away the fog blocking the view of the whole story. The fact that all will be well is never a spoiler; it’s in the very title and underscored in the prologue. Still, if you read the story, by the middle of Book Two you will have forgotten. The art is in the way Van Booy reminds the reader.

Everything Beautiful Began After
is very nearly a meditation on the resiliency of spirit and the rewards of perseverance instead of a tragedy or love story. Van Booy almost lost me with the rambling, second-person sob fest of Book Two, but the format and presentation was so utterly deviant compared to the norm of the novel that I stayed interested. After getting into the final chapters I had come to fully appreciate the overall plot, and after a few days and a look back I understand the point of the second and third books and appreciate how they enriched the ending in a way impossible for a less innovative approach. It is a book that can be thought about or felt deeply or both, which should come as little surprise given Van Booy’s earlier philosophy anthologies and award-winning stories. 


Post a Comment