All Stories are Love Stories
I got an advance copy of All Stories Are Love Stories, by Elizabeth Percer, from HarperCollins, and enjoyed it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t visit San Francisco often—it’s the story of what happens to a handful of San Francisco residents when the big earthquake comes. Quotations from the ruins of Pompeii and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake preface some of the chapters.
Told in third person but from multiple points of view, the novel starts out with Max Fleurent, who is talking to his mother on the phone on the morning of his thirty-fourth birthday and admitting that he doesn’t have any romantic prospects in mind for a birthday dinner. Then we switch to an academic, Gene Strauss, who is giddy at the prospect of going home to tell his partner, Franklin, about getting a tenure-track job in the area of earthquake prediction at Stanford. Then we’re thrown into the nightmares of Vashti Shirah, who is a night baker and still dreaming of Max Fleurent, although these dreams are tangled up with dreams of a dead husband and child.
These three people are going about their days, and the narration makes it clear that each of them is about to experience an earth-shattering event, that there is going to be an earthquake, one that Gene didn’t predict.
We learn that Vashti lost her mother when she was young and developed a compulsion to eat dirt, that Gene’s partner is dying, and that Max’s father left him and his mother after moving them to San Francisco, where “the whole city was riddled with blossoms whose colors he had not known could be found in nature: fuchsias and limes and golds.”
Gene is on the highway when it happens: “all around him, vehicles slid and crashed into each other like bumper cars in an amusement park, the confused sounds of horns going off unwillingly and alarms shrieking and metal crunching metal and glass exploding piercing his ears.” He spends the rest of the story trying to walk home to find Franklin and reproaching himself for being “far more concerned with his reputation than the good he might do with it” predicting the next earthquake. But “Franklin would say he was being too hard on himself. Maybe that’s what love was: teaching your beloved to see himself as he saw you.”
Vashti and Max have just passed each other in the lobby of a theater, where he grabs her hand and tries to run when a second earthquake happens, bringing the balcony down on top of them. There’s some confused description from Vashti’s point of view, with a dream of her mother using one hand “to deftly scoop the dirt from her daughter’s mouth….It was a movement so gentle and quick, as natural and strange as what Vashti often found herself doing to clear her infant daughter’s mouth, using her fingers to open her throat or her fist to press into her rib cage because there wasn’t time to reach for anything else when she aspirated or otherwise choked on something sudden and simple and life-threatening, or simply stopped breathing yet again.” We find out that Vashti left Max because she wanted to give birth to a baby that could not live long, and he was not as committed to the idea. As he holds her hand and talks to her, underneath the rubble of the balcony, he regrets letting her leave and never seeing his baby.
Max and Gene live, and meet each other, but the scope of the disaster is so vast that one news reporter has to explain to another that people “don’t want to see someone’s grandma trapped on the twentieth floor of the Mark Hopkins with no one in sight. They don’t want to see the dogs people had to leave behind, the abandoned fire trucks, policemen shooting first and asking questions later because they’re panicking about crowd control. People only say they want to know everything because it makes them feel good about themselves, eyes wide open and all that. So we make them think they’re getting an edge on information without bringing them too far out.”
At the end, the problems of three little people—Max, Gene, and Franklin—do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world; Franklin wants to tell a “bunch of twentysomethings with spades and rakes” that “the soil’s way too uric on Castro. Unless they want asparagus.” Max and Gene visit Vashti’s apartment, which she has left to Max, and he sees a photo of his baby. Gene offers to pass on what Franklin is teaching him about cooking and they agree that it’s not too late for Max to be a father: “Gene shrugged. ‘Hey, anyone can adopt these days. Even broken-hearted, gimpy bachelors.’”
If I lived in San Francisco, or even visited there more often, this novel would terrify me, in spite of the small-scale happy ending. How do people live with the daily possibility that the earth could open up beneath them? Are there really people like Gene, who think that “it was both comforting and awful to dwell and die in a place where any one person’s life, no matter how important, was insignificant compared to the place where he lived it”?