Review of Charles Baxter’s “There’s Something I Want You to Do”

somethingThere’s Something I Want You to Do:

It involves diving deep into the interior of others’ lives, for the sake of discovery; Charles Baxter, the author of five novels, numerous short story collections and three poetry collections (for which he has received various honors and awards) published his newest collection in February from Pantheon Books. The ten stories are organized by virtues and vices: Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, Forbearance; Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Vanity. At first, one might assume from the titling of these stories that there will be a rigid, overarching moral lesson.  As the reader begins to make their way from one story to the next, they might also believe that each story is a separate entity from the others in the collection, yet neither of these assumptions are true.

As the narratives unfold, the characters are undeniably linked in strange ways and the tone of morality proves to be more and more subjective as the narratives go on. Baxter keeps readers engaged as they become witnesses to the romance, chaos, despair, and sometimes humdrum normalcy of the lives of these complex characters. Baxter reveals that sometimes, when things collapse, it is inevitable, like a natural disaster, and no one is to blame.

They lived in comfort and kindness with each other. But then something happened. Let’s say a volcano erupted.”

Baxter invites readers into the lives of these unpredictable characters whose past and present states are made visible to the reader, so that they can understand where each character has been and how they’ve evolved, or fallen from grace. These characters arrive at love, and respectively fall away from it; they are separated from one another, and sometimes find their way back, though in drastically altered states. No matter what harsh realities have existed between them or what mistakes they have made, there is an ever-present air of social responsibility between these characters. Baxter reminds readers through the voices of his compelling characters that “we have these obligations to our human ruins.” The repetition of the line “There’s something I want you to do” runs like a thread through all of these narratives. It casts a spell on the reader, as if to cause them to realize that there are certain moments in life when we are called to action for another, and that we must be attentive or run the risk of missing them.

baxter1Readers see Doctor Elijah, a pediatrician with hidden depths of addiction, as well as Matty Quinn, a young gay man returned to the U.S. from a service trip in Africa, who is wracked with the burden of a painful disease, along with the burden of his own coping mechanisms.  Baxter portrays characters whose struggles for mental stability have alienated them from those they were once closest to, whereas others come to see them as their personal guardian angels. Readers will witness Benny Takemitsu’s inherent weakness for women who can make him laugh, but will recognize a compassion deep enough to talk someone down from a ledge. As readers journey into the lives that dwell within these ten different tales, they will find, among these diverse characters, if nothing else, compassion for the many types of individuals Baxter brings to light, and the many afflictions they battle at any given moment. On that note, there’s something I want you to do: allow yourself to become absorbed in the lives of these characters and see where it takes you.

For more information on Baxter’s work, visit his website.

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