When the pandemic began, I was completely alone. My husband was in Texas at a military firefighter academy and I decided early on to take social distancing seriously. At first this was no big deal. As an introvert, I even enjoyed the extra time to devote to reading and writing. This was my new reality. I didn’t think the lack of physical proximity would wear on me let alone anyone else. Keeping up with loved ones was quickly reduced to scrolling social media feeds, occasional phone calls, text messages, and a Zoom chat here and there. As my connection to the outside world and the people I love closed off, I lost myself in worlds created by writers I admire.
Just in time for this deep dive into fiction, I received an advance copy of M-Theory by Tiffany Cates. As the isolation and heat swarmed around me, I entered a story about the connections formed between strangers who commute daily on Chicago’s L Train. This is where we meet the two main characters, riding the train during a cold Chicago winter. Donovan first notices Emily on the train, and he takes note of her physical appearance. Then he starts making assumptions. The two start talking and Donovan begins to form a story about who Emily is and what her “utility” is in his own life. The resulting narrative feels as romantic as it does eerie. “The space between her reality and his imagination was slippery.” At the core, this story is about how the ideas we have about and needs we place on others don’t always align with reality. On top of that, these perceptions and desires are constantly in flux.
In August, five months into the pandemic, I finally felt okay about seeing one of my closest friends. We met at an outdoor café for coffee and spent a few hours trying to reconnect and catch each other up. Like other friends and family, she and I had messaged one another through social media over the months, keeping tabs through photos and snippets of thoughts. One picture she shared that still stands out in my mind was of her holding her son by the shore of the local reservoir. They are both laughing. I assumed her boyfriend had taken the picture. This said to me that she had her people with her and she was fine. At least as fine as any of us were.
As the conversation with my friend went on, it quickly became clear that I’d made a big mistake when she said “I just can’t not see people,” she looked at me and tears filled her eyes. “It’s too much.” She shared some of the struggles she’d been through since we had last seen one another. M-Theory and Donovan came to mind. So did the picture at the reservoir that she had shared a few weeks before. I hadn’t called her to ask how she was. Our previous conversations never went deep enough for the truth of her situation to come through to me. I felt like a terrible friend. Or perhaps I was a terrible friend. I thought of M-Theory again, and how you can’t take a single moment (or picture) and define or understand another person through it. Not even when it comes to the people closest to us. When we do that, the results can be devastating. In the book, Donovan asks Emily at one point while they are on the train, “What do you see when you look at me?”
Cates does an excellent job of providing the reader with just enough information about these characters and their connections to keep the pages turning. It isn’t until the conclusion, after many pieces have been compiled, that we reach the end of the line and the full picture comes into view. Only then do we see the truth behind the connections the characters share.
The primary story that unfolds between Donovan and Emily is romantic and eerie. More than that, it is coming into the world at a time when questioning the stories we have told ourselves feels more important than ever, which is precisely what Donovan fails to do. Donovan says to a detective towards the end of the novel, “You make a living out of isolating moments and saying that’s who someone is.” We all do this at times, often without realizing it. This story is a reminder that it is essential to stop and question how we perceive others. To ask ourselves what is actually true and what we have conveniently chosen to believe–about others and also about ourselves. I’d chosen to believe my friend was fine, because I was. Because she hadn’t reached out to explicitly tell me otherwise. I’d assumed I would just know if she was struggling. In actuality she could have used a friend more than ever, and I hadn’t been there.
In the novel, another character talks to Emily about shared reality in a relationship being like flying an airplane. The sky is enormous, like the truths we carry inside ourselves, and it can be disorienting. Every now and again you have to check and make sure you are actually heading in the direction you think you are. If you don’t, you risk crashing.
For a week in the summer, the same week I saw my friend, I was completely engrossed in M-Theory. With a winter of isolation ahead, I’m spending more time recalibrating and checking in on the people I love. I’m also hoping to encounter more books like this one. Books that capture my attention, while also motivating me to ask new questions, and ultimately to see the real world a little more clearly.
Lindy Callahan is an MFA graduate from Oregon State University-Cascades. She writes about life in the American west, examining the myths and stories she encountered growing up in Utah as a fifth generation Mormon through a broader historical lens and personal experience. Her travel writing and essays can be found on Visit Utah, Travel Oregon, Cascade Journal, and Entropy. www.lindycallahan.com