Shelter in Place Alexander Maksik
Shelter in Place is not a retreat or a safehouse, rather, Maksik “shelters” us in disbelief. The place in which we’re suspended (sheltered) is our narrator’s solitary confinement in the woods outside Seattle after a catastrophic turn of events. Maksik holds us uncomfortably close to our narrator, Joe, who addresses us as “you,” as if we’re his journal. Maksik casts a spell over us in sparing and delicate prose, by turning the corners of plot often enough we must track close lest we get lost in time and lose the thread. Despite the lurid nature of his tale, I kept turning pages. I didn’t want to miss a word!
This is not the story leading up to disaster. The first line casts the die on all that is to come. “In the summer of 1991 my mother beat a man to death with a twenty-two ounce Estwing framing hammer and I fell in love with Tess Wolff. Now, many years later they have both disappeared and I am alone here on this pretty clearing in the woods. Alone, save for the tar and bird and the other thing, for which I have no name.” The story, then, is the creation of memory, a sense-making, in which we readers are intimately involved.
“Listen,” says Joe, our narrator, “I am trying to survive.” He gets us to listen by satisfying us up front (we know what’s happened right off the bat) and laying alongside each other fragments of past and present which we are left to weave together. I enjoyed how Maksik folds the past into the present. “I shut my eyes and found Tess, the motel bed.” He doesn’t need to say he’s having a memory, just transports us through the action of Joe’s eyes shutting. Keeping the past and present from crowding or overlapping each other too much is part and parcel of Joe’s survival. It is not pleasant for us nor him. At times I got sick of hearing the refrain repeated again and again: mother a murderer, Tess gone, sister fled, father becoming a Quaker. But, the repetition helped me relate to how the raw truth must hound Joe, for whom it is reality, not suspended disbelief!
A potential weakness of the story is that the characters are foils for each other. For example, Tess stands in for Joe’s absent sister and mother. Tess is Joe’s best friend, as his sister had once been, and his protector, as his mother was. Mother Anne-Marie and sister Claire get many fewer words than Tess. Claire is escaped to England and Anne-Marie is absent from the present save a few visits in prison, and Joe’s memories of her are clouded by her crime. She and Tess share a fierceness, an unwillingness to compromise. Tess tries to continue what she sees as Anne-Marie’s righteous fight for justice. For these reasons, it is easy to conflate Tess with Ann-Marie or Claire. So, too, Joe’s father is everything these women are not: steady, routine, always on the side of love over hate. I wondered: does it help or hinder the book that all the characters make sense only in relation to each other, that they do not have their own lives?
I decided the story is about mirrors, about a desire-er, Joe, looking at his objects of desire. He enlists us, his audience, as a springboard to form his desire into a thing of beauty, something to behold and love. “We are so much better told by the sentences of others. It may be that I am doing a better job of telling your story than I am of mine.” By describing the objects of his desire to us, he can see himself as they saw him. Perhaps we don’t make sense, like an equation might, but are validated somehow, “told better.” Tess becomes not only an object of Joe’s desire, but a character in her own right, through his telling. And we, in turn, see ourselves as beautiful in light of such sublime writing. In the end, he finds, and we receive, something to call his memories, the nothingness that came after upheaval: Shelter in Place.
I believe this is a story asks questions pertinent to our current political landscape: what do we do when facing circumstances over which we have no control, including our own feelings and mental state? What story do we tell ourselves? Maksik, through Joe, doesn’t provided answers so much as an imaginary glimpse, a world of what-if, for us to explore. Perhaps literature, art, love, dreams are valid responses to a country turned upside down.