Oprah is consuming my life. Somehow my other activities have been removed from the “pseudo-granola girl” column (pretending to be vegan, pretending to like yoga, pretending to purchase only local, organic goods) and entered into the “overachieving yummy mummy who turns to Oprah for balance and clarity” column. It won’t be long before I find myself wondering whether asparagus is an Oprah-approved vegetable and if I’m supposed to be working on body acceptance or body improvement this week.
This is only book four.
I’ll understand if you no longer want to be my friend.
My self-sabotage lament segues nicely into Oprah’s next selection, Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. After taking over ten years to select a single short story collection for her official book club (Uwem Akpan thanks you, Oprah), Meloy’s taut stories are the second collection to get a little Oprah love this summer, the first being Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. Unlike Black’s, this collection is sublime.
Meloy’s stories are vivid and delectable, with complex and dynamic characters. All these characters are human, selfish, self-absorbed, and self-sabotaging humans who want it both ways. Let’s face it, we all want it both ways. We want the professional success and the freedom to stay home, we want the friend and her husband, the stability of coupledom and the freedom of singledom, the chocolate bar and the thinness that accompanies not eating it. No rational person wouldn’t want it both ways. I certainly do. I give you permission to judge me for this.
Where Meloy really shines is in her skillful crafting of her characters’ indecisiveness and poor decision-making practices. It’s easy to dismiss a conflicted character as a selfish asshole (most of Meloy’s characters aren’t particularly likable) and decree a holier-than-thou moral judgment upon them. It’s not you cheating on your spouse, it’s them. But reading these gorgeous, subdued stories is like watching an episode of Deal or No Deal. Do you take the money and run or stay and play? Both options have pros and cons. This is easy to see. It’s also easy to yell at the screen, throw some slightly burned popcorn at Howie Mandel’s shiny head, and declare a definitive answer to the question “Deal or or deal?” because it’s not your money to lose. It’s not your decision to make. If you’re completely honest with yourself, you’ll realize that you have no idea what you’d really do in that situation. Because you’d want it both ways. You’d want to keep the money and still stay and play for more. Just like all Meloy’s characters.
I’ve cheated more than I’d like, stolen more than I’m willing to admit, and lied more times than I count. When reading these stories, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was this personal history that enabled me to be so forgiving and understanding of this rag-tag bunch of morally ambiguous misfits. For the most part, I’m not a bad person and haven’t done that many bad things. These gaps in quality decision making and judgment make me human, make me real, and, well, make me likable. (I am likable. Trust me.) I’m a bit of a screw-up. So are these characters. And (unless you’re Oprah) you probably are too.
(I have a theory Oprah is as big a screw-up as the rest of us. She’s just better at leveraging it into superstardom.)
Of the four books I’ve read so far, this is the one I can least likely imagine Oprah reading. It isn’t because there aren’t hundreds of pages of misery to slog through or because there’s a “New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books” sticker on it. What’s lacking here is a clear, morally driven I-can-get-behind-this-person-and-support-their-choices protagonist. Oprah is attracted to strong characters and strong stories. This book has both, but Oprah likes a strong message too. She seems like a clear-cut kinda gal. With Meloy, each story ends with an inability to decipher what is the right and wrong thing to do, even though the choice should be obvious. These are not paradoxical thought experiments. These are characters presented with a choice, usually one which is clearly right (don’t sell tickets for the opportunity to sleep with your dead best friend’s girlfriend) and pme wrong (sure, sell those tickets—she told you to do it!), but Meloy’s nuance and thoughtfulness blurs the line between right and wrong. And “hmm, I don’t know” isn’t the best response in your book club group when asked if a character’s actions were reprehensible.
I’m going to go eat that chocolate bar now. Oprah’s body improvement quest can suck it.
Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist