If E.M. Forster hadn’t already scooped up “Only connect” as the epigraph for his novel, “Howards End,” Joan Silber would have the perfect fit for it. In fact, Silber deserves it a little more. The worlds she twines together in her new book of linked short stories, “Secrets of Happiness,” span oceans and continents, along with the social divides that were Forster’s focus.
“Secrets of Happiness” is Silber’s latest novel-in-stories, a format she first experimented with in 2004’s “Ideas of Heaven” (a finalist for the National Book Award) and has made great use of ever since, including in the story cycle “Improvement,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
The anchoring locale in “Secrets of Happiness” is Manhattan, where gay lawyer Ethan, his sister and his parents live. But midway through Ethan’s narrative, a bombshell revelation concerning his father expands the book’s scope to Thailand and, indirectly, England, Singapore, Cambodia and Nepal.
Silber’s knack for inhabiting far-flung realities is remarkable. She doesn’t use spelling tricks to evoke dialects or regional accents as her narrators reveal what it’s like to grow up half-Thai in Queens, do garment union work in Phnom Penh, or work on a textile industry documentary in London. Instead, her handling of her characters’ diverse manners of speech is self-effacingly spare. Somehow she’s able to make you buy into their American, British or Southeast Asian realities without overdoing them.
While Ethan’s perspective opens and closes the book, the connecting thread — quite literally — is the clothing business. Ethan’s father, Gil, is a “rag trade” entrepreneur whose travels have taken him to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Bangladesh, as well as Thailand. His frequent absences from home provide perfect cover for the fact that for years he’s had a secret second family in Queens, where his mistress runs a Thai restaurant that Ethan’s family visits regularly.
The shock of this revelation causes Ethan, his sister and his mother to reassess everything they thought they knew about their family — and, in his mother’s case, to take bold action. But we don’t stay in Ethan’s circle of family and friends for long.
The next narrator is Gil’s half-Thai son Joe. Ethan is an offstage presence in Joe’s life. Instead, Joe’s hardworking mother, juvenile delinquent brother and high school ex-girlfriend are his sources of inner and outer drama. Through the girlfriend, Joe is linked to a cinematographer on a film crew shooting that textile industry documentary in England, and through that cinematographer, other lives come into view.
The book’s narrative suspense increases with the arrival of each new narrator (there are six altogether). Perplexing plot points in one episode — a seemingly pointless lawsuit, for instance — find explanation, if not justification, in the next. Along with the pleasure of figuring out the connections between these characters, there’s a thematic suspense to the book too, implicit in its title.
All Silber’s narrators voice variations on the questions: What brings happiness in life? Where do greed, desire and bargaining ability fit into the picture? Where does contentment with having less?
“[A]ll religions hated money,” Joe reflects. “Buddhist monks were supposed to own nothing but their begging bowls and clothes. Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple. Orthodox Jews couldn’t carry cash on the Sabbath.” Joe himself is “mad at money for the dirt it threw on my life.” Much of that dirt has to do with his father. “He believed in money,” Joe muses. “[H]e wanted everything bound to him by it, as if it were surer than other ties.”
Ethan’s take on his father’s conniving grasp at happiness is a little different. “How hard he must’ve worked at that elaborate life of his, hiding and emerging and making himself up,” Ethan reflects. “He took to his roles, as spies do, but it wasn’t the easiest way to live.”
Each narrator also has a moment when he or she has to choose whether or not to bend to the will of a lover, a sibling, a parent, a child — or to their own wayward wills. (“People think if they’re honest about their cravings, it makes anything okay,” one says. “That’s a fallacy of modern life.”)
They’re also forced to acknowledge the impracticality of giving up material desire altogether.
“I hate to break the news to you,” one is told, “but nobody lives on nothing anymore.”
Silber’s prose is so efficiently distilled that it occasionally feels overly abrupt. Still, the swift way she moves through tricky states of mind can be exquisite. Here, in five short sentences, is a sister’s reaction to her terminally ill brother saying there’s nothing more he needs from her.
“He really wanted nothing?” she asks herself. “He had to want to live, if he was going to last a little longer. Indifference would drag him under. What did nothing mean? Maybe I wasn’t paying attention properly.”
“Secrets of Happiness” pays the best kind of attention to its characters’ desires, dilemmas and, of course, connections.
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