Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin

  • Review
By – October 11, 2022

Peter Orner’s essay col­lec­tion, Still No Word From You: Notes in the Mar­gin, doesn’t home in on any sin­gle part of his life, but instead tracks how books have influ­enced it. With his quin­tes­sen­tial­ly humor­ous and insight­ful voice, Orner grap­ples with themes of loss, the infal­li­bil­i­ty of mem­o­ry, and the dif­fi­cul­ty of change, even when we acknowl­edge that change will lead to our improvement.

In 107 essays — few of which exceed four pages—Still No Word From You fol­lows Orner’s child­hood and his rela­tion­ship with his par­ents, his for­mer wife, and his cur­rent part­ner and their kids. With their shift­ing nar­ra­tive cen­ter, the book’s short pas­sages often fail to gain momen­tum, such that the col­lec­tion might be bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed one or two essays at a time. That a siz­able por­tion of these essays were first pub­lished in a reg­u­lar col­umn Orner wrote for The Believ­er—called Notes in the Mar­gin, the subtitle’s name­sake — sup­ports this assessment.

The sto­ries Orner presents are refract­ed through his read­ing of rough­ly one hun­dred dif­fer­ent texts. Some­times he’s out doing some­thing and is remind­ed of a sto­ry, while oth­er times he’s read­ing and finds him­self draw­ing com­par­isons to and from his own life. This two-way street — how his read­ing com­ple­ments his life, and how his life com­ple­ments his read­ing — con­sis­tent­ly deep­ens the col­lec­tion, remind­ing us that read­ing is not about absorb­ing a sin­gle nar­ra­tive, but about par­tic­i­pat­ing in an inter­ac­tion that reach­es far beyond a book’s pages.

Need­less to say, Orner gleans wis­dom from each text he encoun­ters; or, if not wis­dom, then a bet­ter under­stand­ing of him­self and his pri­or­i­ties. In the collection’s sec­ond essay, for exam­ple, he notes a pref­er­ence for want­i­ng to read just the begin­ning of sto­ries. There’s antic­i­pa­tion in the begin­ning; we are set­tling in; we know some­thing that the char­ac­ters don’t. Orner is not explic­it about what he derives from this obser­va­tion, which in turn gives us space to enter the text and won­der what he — and we — might enjoy about this sense of expec­ta­tion, this height­ened access to knowledge.

Orner’s life is a read­ing life, and those of us who share his bent will like­ly see our own expe­ri­ences reflect­ed in Still No Word From You.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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