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Anything Is Possible explores the puzzling complexity of relationships

The lives in Elizabeth Strout’s new novel are prisms, held up to the light and flashing out an infinite spectrum of interpretation.

Pete knows his sister is coming home. Or, at least, towards home: she is heading to Chicago on a book tour, and Chicago is not so far from Amgash, where they grew up, where Pete still lives.

He has not seen his sister for 17 years. She has become a well-known writer during those years; someone whose life is utterly different from what they both knew.

He felt a sense of awe that she was who she was: she had left this tiny house, this small town, the poverty they had endured – she’d left it all, and moved to New York City, and she was, in his eyes, famous.

The last time we met Lucy Barton she was in the hospital; or, rather, she was a writer recalling a stay in hospital, some time in the mid-1980s. She had gone to have her appendix removed but an infection forced her to extend her stay.

Unexpectedly, her mother arrived to visit, staying by her bedside, gossiping with her, telling stories of the lives back in that small Illinois town where Lucy and Pete and their sister, Vicky, were raised. The hospital room had a view of the Chrysler Building: Lucy had come a long, long way from the poverty and desperation of her childhood, and Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, was an elliptical reflection on whether it is possible to escape from the past.

Anything Is Possible is a companion volume to that book. It is set in the approximate present, when Lucy is, indeed, going to Chicago on a book tour, having published what is described as a memoir. Is that “memoir” My Name Is Lucy Barton?

It may well be, though Strout leaves the possibility hanging in the air. The focus here is on the lives of the townsfolk glimpsed in the earlier book. It is structured – like Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge – as a series of linked stories that connect the people from a small town whether they want those connections or not.

It would be perfectly possible to read Anything Is Possible without having read My Name Is Lucy Barton; that would, however, be a shame. Lucy Barton has already given the reader the sense that no tale is to be trusted. As Lucy listens to her mother’s stories, we are invited to question their veracity: they are presented not only as gossip, but also as an offering, a way in which the mother might try to repair her damaged relationship with her daughter.

In Lucy Barton, Lucy’s mother tells the story of Kathie Nicely, who has an affair with one of the teachers at her children’s school. Lucy is left distraught by the story: her mother’s vantage point is very different. In Anything Is Possible, Patty Nicely, Kathie’s daughter, recalls finding her mother in bed with a lover. We see the effect of her parents’ divorce on her life and her attempts to find a new path.

Patty will forge a bond with Charlie Macauley, the Vietnam veteran glimpsed in the previous book, a man who cannot chase away his demons. And the story that Lucy’s mother tells about “Mississippi Mary” turns out to have another chapter in Anything Is Possible.

This web of narrative demonstrates Strout’s vision of the puzzling complexity of human relationships. The lives here are prisms, held up to the light and flashing out an infinite spectrum of interpretation. One story is Lucy’s own: when she does return to her home town to meet her siblings she suffers a panic attack as memories of their brutal childhood come ever closer. Lucy the feted author is in danger of losing control of the story she has told to herself about their lives. “It was not that bad,” she insists. “It was exactly that bad, Lucy,” her sister says.

There is always darkness under the surface here; it is often much nearer than that. The publisher’s description of the book refers to “the deep bonds of family” and “the hope that comes with reconciliation”, but those bonds can be imprisoning and the reconciliation is often of a very qualified kind. Anything Is Possible makes an Escher staircase of story and perspective. Strout’s prose, clear as water, refrains from judgement, evoking only the true empathy that comes with understanding the difficulty of any life, every life, in any and every circumstance.

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 254pp, £12.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.