book by Bernard Cooper
annotation by Wendy Fontaine
At first glance, the thirty or so essays that appear in Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere seem to lack a common narrative thread. Upon closer read, the unifying factor of these works becomes more apparent. The essays explore the contrast between the idealism of a 1950s childhood and the disillusionment of family members struggling with medical issues, sexuality and disappointment. Through evocative prose, self-deprecating humor and the ability to see what others may not, Cooper gently places his reader at the crossroads of dream and reality, hope and fear, wonderment and grief.
Some of his essays are contemplations, or up-close studies of objects and concepts that are so ordinary they hardly warrant thought (a barber’s pole, potatoes), but Cooper manages to elevate them to the level of profundity. Others are memories, mostly of loss and heartache, such as the death of his brother and the declining health of his father. Cooper explores the relationship between everyday and profound by creating contrasts in his essays.
In “The House of the Future,” one of the collection’s longer works, Cooper describes a futuristic modular house made entirely of plastic. He compares the staged solitude of the model home with that of his actual home, which was more chaotic and less welcoming, due in part to his older brother’s struggle with leukemia and his father’s infidelities. Cooper frames his family’s losses around the fortified structure of a home that will never break down, never deteriorate and never need repair. He writes:
One could look down through the plexiglass steps to the House of the Future and glimpse a large reflecting pool, shivering and shaped like an amoeba. It bore little resemblance to the rubber pools, rowdy children wading within, which dotted our local yards. (98)
Cooper grew up around Los Angeles, and the sights and sounds of the city are apparent in his writing. Throughout the collection, Cooper is a California boy. As a child, he watches his father dive into the backyard swimming pool, noticing the way the man’s skin hangs loose from his body. As a grownup, Cooper is still is father’s son. In “The Wind Did It,” an essay in which his father refers to him in Yiddish as “boychik” and repeatedly says “I’m just looking back,” Cooper watches his dad prepare for a trip to meet a Somoan chief named Muto Peli:
I’m sprawled on my back in the middle of the room, picking at strands of plush carpet, wishing I hadn’t eaten the cheesecake. But my father wanted to celebrate, to say good-bye with something sweet, and besides, he loves to watch me eat, especially foods his doctor forbids. I lift my head and lean on my elbow. “Say his name one more time.” (61)
Cooper’s sentences are long and leisurely with multiple clauses and commas, a style that gives his writing a dreamy, sentimental feeling. In an essay entitled “Live Wire,” Cooper takes this sentence structure to the extreme, writing the entire paragraph-length story all in one sentence. The piece captures in beautiful brevity the moment an electrical wire falls to the street. It reads more like poetry than prose.
Cooper also uses simile in a way that is both effective and efficient. With just a few words, he conveys the full meaning of a moment, or creates a vivid picture for the reader. After reading a newspaper piece about his father’s divorce from his second wife, Cooper writes, “My secret knowledge of him, acquired via the news, hangs between us like a crystal chandelier, swaying and clinking, erupting with refractions.” (48)
Personally, what I admire most about Cooper’s work is how adept he is at noticing things that others might miss, and then capturing them in words that are both simple and stunning.
For example, when he writes, “We walk downstairs and out to my car. As we hug goodbye our glasses bump,” (62) he captures the similarities between father and son, and the lovable awkwardness of a grown man hugging his father.
As writers, we often attempt to tackle the larger issues in our lives: disappointment, trauma, grief, joy and triumph, to name a few. But Maps to Anywhere inspires me to pause in the smaller moments, to take note of how these in-between instances can have their own meaning, and then to experiment with language structure and simile in order to find that connection between ordinary and profound.