Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things opens with a letter to a wife from her husband’s lover.
“I began sleeping with your husband last June. We were together for seven months, almost as long as I’ve known him,” Pierpont writes. “We did it in my apartment. Or I went to his studio, a lot. One time at the Comfort Inn in midtown, last August. He used his Visa. Look it up.”
The twisted missive accompanies a printed set of illicit emails intended for Deb Shanley, who lives with her adulterous sculptor husband and two kids on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Instead, the doorman hands it to her precocious 11-year-old daughter, Kay, who wishfully mistakes it for an early birthday present. After marinating in shock, she shows it to her 15-year-old brother, Simon, who’s just smoked marijuana for the first time.
“After I finished writing [Among the Ten Thousand Things], I realized what really fascinated me was the discrepancy between what you accept in adult relationships and what you tell your children,” Pierpont says, “and at what point those two things meet in the middle—when kids realize that everything they’re being taught is not really how their parents live. Sometimes you can’t keep them from the truth.”
Pierpont is a New Yorker contributor and graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she received the Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship, as well as the Stein Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn but grew up on West Seventy-ninth Street—one subway stop south of where the Shanleys’ marriage dissolves.
It mightn’t have, had Deb received the package first, for reasons readers soon learn. But the children’s involvement is her clarion call to action.
“Deb wanted to protect her children. She wanted to put shoes on their feet and coats over their shoulders, coats though the weather had warmed already....She wanted to carry her children someplace safe, her mother’s or the movies, carry them though they were fifteen and eleven and too big for her to carry,” Pierpont writes in “Part One: New York, the End of May.”
Among the Ten Thousand Things is told in four sections, with the divorce confirmed in the second. “Part Two: That Year and Those That Followed” marks a significant shift in style and speed: information bursts accrue decades’ worth of milestones, all the way up through Jack’s death. To interrupt the legato narrative of the family’s unraveling is a bold structural choice—one that Pierpont made early on.
“I knew I wanted to make time a subject in the book, and it’s something that books, in particular, do really well, better than a lot of mediums: the ability to jump back and forth,” she says. “I wanted that feeling of pulling the rug out from under you—suddenly you know everything that’s going to happen—but I want you to keep reading, because maybe that’s not the most important thing. There’s always focus on the outcome, sometimes to the detriment of the actual experience, but that’s not how you spend your whole life. The ending is not how you live.”
She writes, “The end is never a surprise. People say, Don’t tell me, Don’t spoil it, and then later they say, If only I’d known. Nights in old living rooms, on pullout couches left pushed in, light reflects against the glass where the surprises were. We thought we were living in between-time, after this and before that, but it’s the between-time that lasted.”
Time is one theme Among the Ten Thousand Things shares with the Galway Kinnell poem “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” from which the novel’s title is drawn.
“A lot of his poems really touch me, but that one in particular,” Pierpont says. “The speaker is a father, and he’s mourning his lost time with this daughter before it’s happened. She’s a baby crying in her cradle, and he’s looking ahead—and that’s the effect I wanted for part two [in the novel]—it’s like a wakeup to how quickly everything can pass and be over. That awareness in the poem is so heartbreaking to me, and also the idea that he wants to save her and he can’t. No one can stop time or live in this space forever. All you can do is try to be aware of every day.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.