Van Booy is a distinct voice in fiction today. Unsparingly direct, his prose delivers the full emotional force of his characters’ losses and redemptions, unmediated by argot or irony. Be warned before you read The Illusion of Separateness or any of his other books: things are going to get heavy.
It’s likely no surprise that a book with a title as philosophically insistent as The Illusion of Separateness gets a little heavy. What may be surprising is what a fast read it is despite the book’s seriousness. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, moving deftly in time and perspective, Van Booy’s latest novel kept me turning pages like a good mystery.
It’s the story of a chance encounter during World War II and the chain of connections set in place by a moment of mercy. From the fields of occupied France to England, Long Island, and Los Angeles, the plot weaves its way through the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers in demonstration of the book’s epigraph, a quote from the Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
At rare moments, the book’s philosophy overpowers the prose, coming across as not just heavy but flat. Usually, though, the themes shine through the writing, never more powerfully for me than when John Bray’s bomber is shot down over France.
As he floats toward the dark continent, one foot throbbing “as though his heart had fallen into his boot,” John imagines the life he might never have the chance to live: “He might never see Harriet again. They were married but had not yet lived together as man and wife.”
Quoting the full catalogue of what he imagines out of context here would do the passage an injustice, because though it’s high on sentimentality, that sentimentality is undercut by dramatic irony. By this point in the book, we already know that he lives, and that the life he leads is something much larger than what he dreams during his descent and very different in its particulars.
He has, in a sense, committed an error, believing in a moment of terror that he could be cut out of his own life, that his life was somehow elsewhere, separate, waiting for him, never to return. But he returns to himself in the next sentence: “His life was here now in the dark, in the emptiness, drifting over Belgium or France. It no longer mattered where.”
Living in the present despite great uncertainty about the past or the future is a challenge common to the main characters composing the cast of The Illusion of Separateness. It’s only by accepting that uncertainty and forging ahead that they discover their past living in the present and the future unfolding before their eyes.
It’s an ambitious book, and it’s largely successful in living up to its lofty aims. Give it a shot if you’re looking for a thoughtful read that will hold your attention in the present and stick with you after the last page.