A Book of Reasons is a memoir about a recluse. It is a narrative attempting to make sense of a distant brother’s nature, who upon dying, leaves the author his house.
John Vernon breaks his book up into sections which are each titled with one word, “Heat”, “Tools”, “Body”, “Corpse”, “House”, etc. This gives the book an eerie feel, while the words themselves, (with the exception of “Corpse”) do not seem eerie. They seem more general or meaningless in some way, like when a person takes a word and repeats it aloud a hundred times until the word doesn’t make any sense.
Meaninglessness is a central theme of this book: the meaninglessness of a recluse’s life when compared to societal norms, and also the meaninglessness of life itself (how we’re all just kind of here and it doesn’t really mean anything), not necessarily in a depressing way, but in a way which questions that meaninglessness.
While going through Paul’s possessions, Vernon periodically finds writing by Paul, which is described as “handwriting consisted of carefully constructed block letters” written by a person who “barely finished high school and never learned how to spell.” From “House”, chapter entitled, “The Mess”:
“I AM NOT GETTING MUCH SLEEP! WORRYING TOO MUCH I GUESS, ABOUT EVERYTHING!! I DON’T EAVEN KNOW IF I CAN MAKE IT OUT OF THE HOUSE TOMOROW BY MYSELF?? I HAVE TO GET OUT, BY HOOK OR CROOK. TO GET MALE & FOOD FOR MYSELF & CATS!!
I HAVE TO GET RID OF CAT’S!!”
I find the most intriguing aspect of this book the descriptions of Paul. Being 12 years Vernon’s senior, he is from another generation, disconnected through time and experience.
At one point, Paul visits Vernon and his wife and friends and offers to pay for a dinner they are eating at an expensive restaurant. From “Tools”, chapter entitled “Raising Cain”:
“In the restaurant, we moved two tables together and placed my brother at the head. A close friend named Sarah marveled at the fact that, well into his thirties, Paul lived with my parents. Her reaction was to humor him, to treat him as a pet – to tease him, as nurses tease the elderly in nursing homes. I tried to hold back from this subtle mockery, but couldn’t decide whom to be more ashamed of, my friends or my brother. Paul lapped it up. Sarah was beautiful, I should add; he was still asking me, twenty years later, whatever became of her. [...] [W]hen Paul left to use the men’s room, another friend announced his intention to order the menu’s most expensive dish, since my brother had insisted. This friend was cunning and cool and could recognize Paul’s generosity for what it must have been, a bribe to curry friendship. So why not take advantage?”
Throughout A Book of Reasons, Vernon often turns to an encyclopedia; early on, the task of purchasing a thermometer for Paul’s disheveled house leads to a tangent in which Vernon discusses the history of the thermometer and the parties, inventors and other inventions involved leading up to its creation. In this regard, this book is great for anyone interested in learning the origins of everyday objects (and other random details of everyday life Vernon thinks about throughout) that often go overlooked or are taken for granted.
There are many tangents throughout the book regarding philosophy, man’s history of tool use, embalming, etc. I’d say the book so far has been about 60% tangents and 40% memoir. Sometimes, the tangents get in the way; I’m finding the anecdotes and stories regarding Paul and his life and the descriptions of Paul’s house and its contents to be the most fascinating parts.
While reading, I sometimes forget that this memoir is a work of non-fiction. Maybe I haven’t read enough memoirs, but this seems to be an interesting aspect of the genre, realizing that stories, whether fictional or not, are based on real events. There always seems to be a disconnect between the telling of fiction and reality, where one can never truly live up to the other. Do we tell stories to relate something about life, or do we fictionalize stories to learn more about life?
Also from “House”, chapter entitled, “The Mess”:
“The way to the back porch was clogged by mounds of trash – no sense in even trying. Instead, we climbed into the hallway toward the bedrooms, me switching on lights as we proceeded. The house seemed to drip, although everything was dry. Walking in this hallway was pretty difficult. Piled on a one- or two-foot layer of excrement were hundreds of discarded Pepsi bottles – the kind that look like carafes – and we had no choice but to walk across them, like eggshells. Each bottle was crammed with cigarette butts.
I couldn’t open the bathroom door, there was so much trash behind it.”