But What If This Time You Stayed: On "Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory" by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

(Say hello to my Kobo Glo HD, a New Year gift to myself)

“You can write it all down, you can put it in your book of facts, but the truth is no one can ever really understand the tangle of experiences and passions that makes you who you are. It's a secret collection, a private language, a pebble in your pocket that you play with when you're anxious, hard as geometry, smooth as soap.”

I don't think I have highlighted and bookmarked a book as much as I did this one, at least in recent memory. So many passages I wish I could press onto my skin, words I truly wanted to physically carry with me every single moment if I could, like a neon sign that says, "Yes, this is how I feel."  Raphael Bob-Waksberg's short story collection is a brilliant, unique, weird, and absolutely enjoyable ride. I read it in two days. 

I loved BoJack Horseman. I loved it so much I don't think I can watch it again any time soon. The way the story unfolded was so painful, realistic, and dark. But it was the perfect encapsulation of human fragility. And human resilience. We all just want to keep trying to be better versions of ourselves. And that includes accepting the worst parts of us too.

This sentiment is carefully crafted into each of the stories. That feeling of hope: hope that the wounds of past loves heal, hope that we can learn from our mistakes, hope that we find meaning again, hope that love sustains. Even when it's heartbreaking, it's uplifting. 

So unlike the show, this is definitely something I want to go back to again and again, to read when I'm sad or happy or when I feel like I need to be reminded of how beautifully devastating and fleeting life is.

"Every other night will have been rehearsal for Friday 18 July - we had to be ready. Everything was pushing us imperceptibly toward this moment - if I hadn't missed that train, if you hadn't moved for the job, just imagine." 

The best stories in the collection were those that leaned toward the more absurd, almost science fiction. Bob-Waksberg has a very careful hand when it comes to ludicrous premises. He's done it successfully in BoJack Horseman, and he's an even better architect of it in fiction. The surreality of these stories is heightened by the fact that they're being told with a straight face: here's an AntiDoor to a different universe which you can step into during your lunch break. Oh, just another day of planning a wedding with twenty-eight sacrificial goats. A band with a slightly modest following is forced to choose between touring Portland or staying in San Francisco, and oh, by the way, they have superpowers. Two people who found each other on a train but never spoke to each other for six decades. It's all so crazy, and yet, it's precisely the right amount of crazy that amplifies just how vulnerable and foolish we are as humans. It won't change. Put someone in an otherworldly dimension, a world so completely different from their own, and you can expect them to be themselves. 

No circumstance is so bizarre that it will force you to become someone you aren't - in fact, you will turn out to be exactly who you are.

"And I think about how loving someone is kind of like being president, in that it doesn't change you, not really. But it brings out more of the you that you already are."

Thirty-one pages in and I was already crying my eyes out. A little spoiler alert: the fourth story, about a missed connection on a train, really hit home. I've never personally experienced that, but I think the many heartbreaks in our family certainly revolve around those feelings. Of missed chances, of having spent a lifetime with a person and still not knowing them. Another story, about jumping into an alternate universe and meeting a different version of your beloved, was quite compelling too. It was an exercise in futility, an abstraction of curiosity and guilt. It's about pushing the limits of what a transgression can be, using regret (or the lack thereof) as the compass. It's fascinating and heartbreaking. You know where it's going, but just like the character, you still have to go through with it.

"But no, you were gone. And I realized most likely I would never see you again. And I thought about how amazing it is that you can know somebody for sixty years and yet still not really know that person at all."

A lot of the other stories in the anthology contain that same eagerness to just live through it. Pain and misery are just around the corner, but who's to say that's the only thing waiting for you? The first story is actually a great metaphor for this entire premise. A man gives a woman a can of cashews. She knows from her past experiences that it can be a practical joke: open it and a spring-loaded snake will jump at her. And yet, and yet. He promises that it will be different. The canister says it will be cashews. Her heart wants to trust the moment but her memories say otherwise. It's a tug-of-war between going for it and walking away. But one thing that is absolutely clear however - she wants to. 

This book is mostly about the wanting. Some characters follow through with it, most of them don't. In the end, they are defined by the choices they made when the universe - bizarre, and absurd as it was - led them to a fork in the road. And while it can be terrifying to look at life this way (Will I forever be haunted by the weight of every decision??), there is also a kind of liberation that comes with it. That there are so many opportunities to be brave, to take a U-turn, to change course. There's always room to move forward.

"But if there’s a silver lining here (and you’re not sure there is one), it’s the assurance that what you had, whatever it was, had weight. It made an impact. You can put to rest the fear that you were a blip in this other person’s life, a footnote. What you did was important. You hurt somebody, and somebody hurt you."

But it's not so bad to look back, fondly embrace the past, and burrow in the weird, dull, aching satisfaction of remembering. 

"And I thought about how, actually, if you wanted to, you could say the same thing about life. That life is terrifying and overwhelming and it can happen at any moment. And when you’re confronted with life you can either be cowardly or you can be brave, but either way you’re going to live.

So you might as well be brave."

(P.S. This is actually already my fifth book for the year! Yay, resolutions, progress, yadda yadda.) 

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