162 pgs. | $15
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) showed up in my inbox one sunny day after a tornado warning. I don’t often read books as PDF files, so it was strange not to be able to feel the book, not to be able to turn the pages, to have to click through and imagine what it would seem like as a physical thing. I know Kimball’s work pretty well—Us is a book that made me weep into my beard in the coffee shop where I finished it in one sitting. Last year’s Big Ray is also a strutting heartbreaker. Kimball’s from Michigan and lives in Baltimore and plays softball and loves his cats and writes about people’s lives with tenderness and honesty. This book collects some of the three hundred postcard life stories that he wrote over several years. It doesn’t do to read it as creative nonfiction—it’s more like a poetic collage of lives, a deeply fascinating rumble of voices. In the end, I didn’t care how I was reading it, just that I was reading it.
The book started as a performance project at the Transmodern in Baltimore. The curator asked Kimball to participate and they “joked about what a writer could do as performance” and then Kimball came up with the idea to write people’s life stories for them as they waited. Kimball thought the idea was “absurd, but [. . .] also fascinating” and “oddly possible if it were contained to a postcard.” After receiving positive feedback from people whose stories he’d written and being deeply surprised by the “unexpected intimacy” of the encounters, Kimball decided to continue the project. He set up a blog and invited people to get in touch with him if they wanted their stories told. He conducted interviews by phone and e-mail, bought a micro-tipped pen that let him write over six hundred words on each postcard, and the stories began to get longer and more detailed. In his intro, Kimball talks about how difficult the task was. How great the responsibility. One participant told him, “I didn’t think my life was interesting until you wrote it.” Kimball also writes: “[These] postcard stories changed me. I am a different person. I feel bigger. I feel wider. I have more empathy. I see how broken and scared and flawed all of us are. I see how hard almost everybody is trying. Sometimes, I feel like anybody can tell me anything and I can carry that thing, that weight, whatever it is. It is so difficult to be alive and so wonderful too.” Sound too sentimental? It’s not. Really. Kimball’s sincere and you can just about feel the stories changing him (and you, if you’re lucky) as you read.
Many of the stories feel like confessions, as if the subjects are trying to make sense of their lives through Kimball’s tiny portraits. The cast includes writers, self-cutters, fuck-ups, people who hate their parents, people who love their parents, people who never knew their parents, open-minded Christians, atheists, agnostics, drunks, addicts, abusive fathers, failed actors, people who struggle with faith and sexuality, a guy who has visions of Chris Farley, a girl who goes into porn for money, a guy who lives and dies by Def Leppard, Edgar Allan Poe, John Quincy Adams, a woman who donates her eggs and feels like she’s everyone’s mother, people who travel far from home, people who never leave home, people who feel empty, people who are saved, people who are driven by fear, people who are driven by love, people who suffer from terrible diseases, athletes, outcasts, and a wild variety of geniuses. Some favorite moments of mine: Karen Lillis (#46), Kimball writes, was “born under a full moon, which led to her being quiet and dark,” and she takes photos of train stations and train tracks compulsively, thinking that “her future was in the distance”; Josh Maday (#52), suffering from clinical depression for much of his life and now happily married with a daughter, worries that everything will “change to sadness” in a way his daughter cannot understand; and Aaron Goolsby (#111), who “left the Mormon Church and started spending more time at the bowling alley.” Kimball also tells the lives of a couple of babies, his cats, a dog or two, a rooster, an umbrella cover, a chair, a T-shirt, an apple, a horse, and a bar of soap. These often serve to lighten the mood and to give us a break from all the people stories. Though they’re often pretty sad, too. Consider this: Grendl the Cat (#200) “went to sleep one day and [. . .] is still sleeping. Her people still miss her. She was such a good girl.”
Kimball has a perfect eye for detail and knows how to make a spare, sharp sentence that feels, to steal a phrase from Gary Lutz, “life-bearing and essential.” To sum up someone’s existence successfully in so short a space must be terribly difficult, but he never fails at it, never gets lazy. It can be strange reading so many life stories bumped up against each other like this. To be flooded with so many sorrows and joys and failures and struggles and successes makes for a kind of express train of emotion. That is, seeing lives laid out in this way, stripped down and bare and all in a row, can shatter you. You see—as if in a scientific study—precisely how people’s lives break. How they get fixed. How happiness finds them in the form of a lover, a child, a pet, or a place. How it doesn’t. How maybe it never will. Yet, somehow, even the sad stories here are hopeful. Kimball’s writing is threaded with a certain brand of optimism that bleeds into even the darkest entries.
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) is beautiful in a way that’s unlike almost anything else I’ve ever read or seen or heard. The only things I can really compare it to are Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Michael Apted’s Up Series. This book doesn’t have the sprawl of those two works, nor does it have much in common with them aesthetically but, in a way, it serves the same purpose: to, as Roger Ebert said of Apted’s series, “penetrate to the central mystery of life.” Kimball challenges us in obituary-quick bursts to consider the hard business of living. Mostly, though, he inspires us to wonder.
William Boyle is from Brooklyn, NY and lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Los Angeles Review of Books, DOGZPLOT, Fiction Writers Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Chiron Review, Aethlon, and other magazines and journals.