A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You
In the pop-music biz, some artists wow critics and fans alike with a stunning debut album and then, despite continuous releases, never hit those heights again. The artist's style doesn't change dramatically; it's just that the initial effort feels star-kissed, and all subsequent works have to struggle just get a pat on the head.
The same thing can happen with writers. The first book thrills with its range and depth as it draws on everything the writer has learned, thought, and written to that point. Later works reveal the same facility with words, the same approach to the world, but far less prep time. The writer had 20 or 30 years to imagine his or her first book; the next one is on the shelves within a couple of years.
That seems the case with Amy Bloom, the psychotherapist and writer whose debut collection, 1994's Come to Me, earned her a National Book Award nomination. Her second effort, a 1997 novel drawn from one of Come to Me's stories, was a waste of paper and her talent. A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You falls somewhere between the two extremes, but its occasional flashes of brilliance serve only to remind the reader how good Bloom's first book was.
Bloom is not a poet of the everyday; she creates extraordinary problems and challenges ordinary people to handle them. The stories in Come to Me dealt with enormous issues and overwhelming problems--a family watches as its gifted daughter and sister is felled by schizophrenia, a stepmother and her stepson deal with a death in the family--but Bloom's characters were so well-imagined, so flesh-and-blood, that readers' empathy overtook their disbelief.
Bloom returns to this dynamic in her new collection. Not surprisingly, the approach only works in the two stories in which she revisits characters from Come to Me. The rest of the stories are filled with plots of similar enormity and import--a loving mother who pays for her college-aged daughter's sex change, a literature professor dealing with a stillbirth--but Bloom hasn't done the work to make the characters real to herself and the reader. They're just players in her well-thought-out game.
It's a huge loss. Of course, Bloom's extraordinary gift for language remains; a fan can spot one of her sentences a mile away. And she can shorthand the intersection of emotion and self-knowledge better than anyone: "He was about to say that he's not really a son, anymore than he's really a father, that these step-ties are like long-distance relationships, workable only with people whose commitment and loyalty are much greater than average," she writes of the stepson who returns to his stepmother's house, decades after a single night forever defined their relationship. When Bloom knows her characters, she can speak multitudes in a single sentence. When she doesn't, an entire book can say nothing.