What Comes Next and How to Like It, a memoir by Abigail Thomas
Simon & Schuster. 2015.
Abigail Thomas’s new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, tracks the miracle of minutiae as though it were the steady beat of her own heart: the background thump of her conversations and family. The heartbeat speeds up when she talks about the three protagonists: herself, her best friend, Chuck, and her daughter Catherine, who are woven together like three strands of a braid. This braid serves as a messy structure, sometimes dropped, often woven uncomfortably tight, but it’s difficult to fault Thomas for mimicking the messiness of life through her memoir.
Fans of Thomas’s previous two memoirs, 2007’s Three Dog Life and 2011’s Safekeeping, will recognize some of her stories and characters, including her four children and the slow and wrenching death of her second husband from a traumatic brain injury. They will also recognize her prose style, a collage of memories, anecdotes, and images, that, when taken together, form a full look at life’s daily goings on; the disparate memories are mere wisps, held together by the author’s sometimes acerbic, mostly wise observations. Some are no more than a paragraph while others run a few pages. All of them are terrifically complete, and stand for something much greater than what is on the story’s surface.
What Comes Next and How to Like It begins by describing Thomas’s friendship with Chuck, whom she met in 1979 when they worked together at a publishing company. She trains him to read the slush pile, and bonds with him over books with wacky inscriptions like one, long forgotten, dedicated to “the memory of all those who have died by choking.” Chuck and Abby develop a life-long habit of finding humor and reverence in tragedy, and solace in each other.
“Are you two together?” a woman asks them at a publishing party early in the memoir.
“No, but we gave it some thought,” Chuck responds.
“I’m his mother,” Thomas adds, a self-deprecating joke typical of their banter.
Then there’s Catherine who is young, beautiful, and just out of college. She gets a job at the same literary agency where her mother worked with Chuck, only unlike her mother, she does end up having affair with Chuck. That Chuck was married is sad, but that Catherine was nine when he first met her is unsettling. Thomas herself is momentarily unnerved, but then says, unconvincingly, “The only part of this that had anything to do with me was that Chuck was my best friend and Catherine was my daughter. What a relief!” For a brief period, although neither Chuck nor Catherine is estranged from Thomas, the reader is. We might argue with Thomas about how disturbing her friend’s choice was, but she gives us the sense not only of what she would have lost had she fought her friend, but also that he truly loved Catherine. She presents the emotional complexity of the situation, yet holds back from fully examining the pain it undoubtedly caused her.
It is not until years later, when Catherine is visiting her mother with her two small children, that Thomas blows up about it all. But then comes that steadiness of Thomas’s heartbeat again, audible through stories of her children, grandchildren, and dogs is her family, and deriving force from her love and loyalty for them. She refuses to be small and closed off from the pain of life, even when it nips at her for years.
Chuck drinks too much and wrecks his liver; Thomas herself grows older with a mixture of grace and groaning, and then, unimaginably, Catherine gets cancer. “I decide to take the training for becoming a hospice volunteer,” Thomas writes. She is surrounded by her sick friend, her sick daughter, her aging dog, the memory of her husband’s lingering death. She is also surrounded by her own age and the way her body slows and bends under the weight of whatever it is that accompanies growing older. “I want to make Death a member of my family. I don’t want it to arrive as a stranger,” she continues. And yet death’s arrival is both imminent and delayed. Chuck, Catherine, and Thomas each begin the memoir with their mistakes and their mortality, but bookend it with their strength in death’s face, and their vitality as they’re given second and third chances to live.
So how are we meant to like whatever comes next? “I hate chronological order,” Thomas says half way through the book, which comes as no surprise. “Not only do I have zero memory for what happened when in what year, but it’s so boring…the only logical ending for chronological order is death.” And indeed, this is a book very much about preparing for the ultimate next. What comes next for Thomas is bound to be a domestic adventure, a solitary nap with her dogs, a painting, time with her grandchildren, and, if we’re lucky, more writing. What comes next will also be the small moments Thomas is so deft at drawing in her spare but evocative prose: “I’m afraid of people I love dying before I do. I need to find a way to live with that,” Thomas tells Chuck on the phone.
He tells her to find a new approach, so she decides to hire someone to clear some brush behind her studio so she can stand and look into “a more mysterious place.” And with that, the book ends, and like a bell ringing out long after the final lines, she gives us some thoughts on what outlasts death: “Love allows for betrayal and loss and dread. Love is roomy. Love can change its shape, be known by different names. Love is elastic.”
I’m tempted to allow Thomas to have the last word, but then I’m afraid there would be nothing else to recommend. If you read one memoir this year, read this one, just so you, like Abigail Thomas, can appreciate the haunting and giddy revelation of the deer coming in the night to eat the plums she leaves for them. Read it to find out about when spring “force-fed” her too much “loveliness” so she had to escape it by going inside to watch The Exorcist. Read it for her punch lines, her big-heartedness, her failings and triumphs. Read it for her dogs and her children. Read it, most of all, as a gift to yourself.
ELLEN O’CONNELL, originally from California, now lives in New England. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Salon, The Nashville Review, Redivider, and other places. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College, has been nominated for two Pushcart Awards, and won the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing. She currently teaches writing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and is working on a memoir.