A Review of Jill Christman’s If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays

July 8, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Sonya Huber

If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays gives you what you didn’t know you needed: sloths and loss and Swedish Fish candy, alligators and avocados and bird girls, pain and loss and hard traveling back to confront that pain, googly eyes and wayward skirts and lipsticks uncapped in purses, electric eye contact with a fetching poet across a dive bar, all woven with joy. This expertly crafted essay collection works as a memoir and clocks in at a slim 205 pages, but it feels like water, like each sentence is a tumbled and smoothed river stone.

Jill and I met in the bathroom during a nonfiction conference in Ohio sometime around 2004 and decided in that instant—with our matching knee-high black boots and our smart eyeglass frames, in our young motherhood and our urgent need to write amid and out of the mess—to be friends. Whether you meet Jill in a university bathroom or in the pages of this book, you will feel yourself lucky and chosen. You will wonder how a woman as smart and layered, and as generous and funny, might ever have chosen you. And it feels, as always with the magic Jill creates, as though she has chosen you.

I’m obsessed with voice in writing, and the subtle moves that a tapestry of voices can make toward framing the space for a conversation. Some voices have elbows to nudge the reader around, and others stand on tiptoe to make sure the reader knows who’s boss. As I thumb through my dog-eared copy of If This Were Fiction, one thing I notice about the music of Jill’s sentences is that they are speakable and readable, that they ride the length of a breath, fitting easily within the lungs and throat and mind. Jill’s voices on the page are focused by story-telling and crafted like a thoughtful and urgent conversation with a friend.  

Jill and I also worked together at a low-residency MFA program, and one of our colleagues, Joe Mackall, once said, “I read nonfiction to figure out how to get up in the morning.” And I think that is why I am still here, at this glowing screen. Joe Mackall’s anti-Machiavellian dictum–add something to a reader’s life, make the day’s hard beauty a bit more bearable–is the ethic that drives Jill’s sentences. The music of her sentences builds a bond with the reader of trust in which difficult things can be said. Whatever loss, fear, or violation she pursues, she is with the reader in the telling, rooted in a day closer to the present that serves as a lens, bearing the weight of the tale, sharing a carefully considered story in which heartbreak and beauty can both be borne.

In the essay “Slaughterhouse Island,” Jill pauses for a moment in a larger story about a rape to flit toward a bike accident, then asks: “Do you understand yet why we blame ourselves when we are hit, dragging the shame behind us like a twisted rim?” It’s a moment Jill carefully nudges back to the center of contemplation, the moment of feeling oddly embarrassed by her own injuries, by the fact of an accident that happened to her, not because of her. The questions in these essays are not rhetorical; they are the urgent mysteries at the edges of my own peripheral vision, and in reading that sentence I stopped short. Yes, why? Why is this our inheritance, our programming? Christman’s questions–I think she once shared a handout with that very title to help students focus their essays–shine a light on what a reader might dismisses from their own experience. In those moments it feels as though the writing itself is listening to the response welling up in the reader, responding in kind.

The title of this collection is drawn from an essay in which Christman wonders how she’d describe herself in a novel, during a scene in which the action of a brave wade into a river cave might look like “the apex of fearlessness.” The imaginary novel would probably have a sequence of events in which the closing shot offered a lens through which to interpret all that came before. And this is the thing about action without reflection or narration: the reader is left to impose their own meaning or to borrow from repeated tropes to interpret that action–oh how brave—without really being able to see what bravery looks like in one’s own life.

The lovely thing about finely crafted essay collections like this one is that, as tightly as it is structured, one does not feel the impending press of resolution, the casting-ahead desire to see the plot explained. In the best essay collections, we don’t need a denouement because each moment is reflecting upon and enhancing all the others. Christman’s wondering, considering voice doesn’t falter for a moment. Nothing is done for the mere experiment, nothing as text itself, nothing to flex about her technical prowess. The essays are funny and sweet, tragic and wise, but all are composed of parts so necessary that you may find yourself coming to the end and wondering if you even read it, or if it was a dream from your own mind.

Or maybe it just feels this way because, in a sense, I’ve grown up in nonfiction alongside Jill and her stories. And lucky for you, this book gives you easy access to enjoy the same care of this badass woman who refuses to be a badass (which, as we know, is the mark of a true badass). Come along into the river cave, on the kayak, to the scary island, into love and fear in all its forms, to absorb and treasure the avocados and the sloths and loss and wonder and surprise. And the friendship.

___

Sonya Huber is the author of seven books including the forthcoming Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto; more at www.sonyahuber.com.

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