Zorrie, by Laird Hunt

Last year a friend and I were talking about Olive Kitteridge. “I don’t get it,” she said to me. “The writing is beautiful, but what’s the point? It’s just moments in her life. She doesn’t even really change.”

Now, while Olive Kitteridge is one of my favorite books, I can also see my friend’s point. Olive does change, but you sort of have to squint to see it. It’s a little bit like trying to watch an iceberg melt. You know it’s happening, but the lack of any direct evidence makes it easy to dismiss.

My friend’s issue with Olive was twofold: nothing really happens, but also that nothing really happens over a course of interconnected stories that sometimes have nothing to do with Olive at all. Novelist Joan Silber calls this “the biographical model.” So what, then, does that have to do with Laird Hunt’s latest novel, Zorrie?

Uh, well, you know. Nothing really happens. Nothing except everything. The story of a whole, beautiful life. It’s a curious thing about these types of stories, how easily they can be dismissed as being about nothing. I wonder, sometimes, if as readers we do this because we find our own lives so unremarkable. Or, maybe we have become so accustomed to books centered around the hero’s journey that we’ve forgotten that the arc of an ordinary life can be, in and of itself, pretty heroic. We crave the spectacular, that wild “what if?” and also the story that may careen to and fro but has an ending delivered in a neat tidy package. All the stuff “real” life doesn’t offer.

But isn’t there so much wonder to behold in a regular life? Isn’t watching someone live through some moment, however small, and come to a new realization one of the most remarkable things ever? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. It’s why I read.

Zorrie is orphaned at the age of seven when both of her parents die of diptheria. She goes to live with an elderly aunt. When she’s twenty-one, her aunt dies, and her life, such as it will be, begins. For a time, she is homeless and wandering, looking for work wherever she can find it. The country is in the middle of a depression, and Zorrie finally wanders from Indiana–her home state–into Illinois, where she finds a job at the Radium Dial Factory as one of the girls who paint clock and watch faces and dials for military airplanes.

She received twenty minutes of instruction, which included several comments about the safety of the dull yellow powder she was supposed to dip her wet brush into before placing it to her lips to point the tip…When the instructor was gone, the girls on either side of Zorrie rose as one from their places, took her by the elbows, and led her into the adjoining, windowless lavatory, where with some ceremony they had her stand in front of the mirror over the sink before flipping the lights off. First Zorrie saw that her lips were alive with yellow, and then that her fingertips were covered in glowing splotches. The girls behind her were glowing too. One of them had painted a heart on her cheek. The other had painted an eye on her forehead. Their hair and dresses shimmered. Their lips and teeth too were golden. They waved their arms and shook their shoulders and, as they giggled, sent off little clouds of glowing powder to drift through the dark.

Now, I’m not going to lie. I read that absolutely beautiful passage above and thought: Great, here we go. A tale about the sadness and suffering of these girls who worked in the radium plant. Cancer. Bad bosses. Evil lawyers. Capitalism. Possible heartbreak. No no no no no. This is just Zorrie meeting her two best friends. But after only a few months with them, she can hardly bear her homesickness for Indiana, so she returns there and meets her fate in one Harold Underwood, a farmer.

The rest of the novel is about Zorrie’s life on the farm, her neighbors, and the ways their lives intersect. That’s it. That’s the book. But what a book it is, so full of life, and prose that manages to be wondrous without getting in the way of the story:

The crisply chiseled tale of time told by the clocks and watches she had once helped paint faces for came to seem complicit in the agonized unfolding of her grief, so that soon the farm and the surrounding fields and the endless ark of change that enclosed them were the only timepiece whose hour strokes she could abide. Small but sure of purpose within the great mechanism of the seasons, she became a pin on the barrel of wind, a screw in a dial of sunlight, a tooth on an escape wheel of rain.

And of course, things do happen. Things that may not seem momentous at all in the grand scheme of the universe but are nonetheless momentous and meaningful for Zorrie. And for us. As author Laird Hunt told NPR’s Scott Simon (full interview here): “[It] has always seemed to me that no matter where you are walking down the street, you see someone, and there’s this extraordinary life walking by you. We know nothing about it. It may not be a loud life, maybe not a trumpet life, but it’s a rich life. You can bet on that.” So I highly recommend this little book where nothing happens. You absolutely won’t want to miss it.

One thought on “Zorrie, by Laird Hunt

  1. I absolutely love books where “nothing” happens! Strout, Shields, Brookner, writers like that, chronicling ordinary lives are some of my favorite reading experiences. I love a plotty book too, but I crave characters who feel real, complicated and messy like actual people.

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