ONE OF the ways an author can really stretch and test the possibilities of fiction is by covering a great deal of ground -- the wide world. Joan Silber has set out to do this. "The Size of the World" moves from the United States to Vietnam to Thailand, back to the U.S., to Sicily and back to Thailand with dizzying fluidity. Silber weaves a web of characters that ties these places together. Picture the decisions they make in their lives -- whom to marry, where to live, what to do for work -- as the intersections of various threads. Each time a child is born, the radius of the web spins outward with new possibilities, new vectors, new decisions. Longing is the fuel, the energy that drives this growth: longing to be with the person you love, wherever that takes you; longing for a place; longing to do right; longing for redemption.
Toby is an engineer whose company sends him to Vietnam in 1968 to investigate why American planes are flying off course. His genius partner, the nerdy Ernst, discovers that a faulty screw is to blame for many deaths. Toby sees too much in Vietnam; he finds solace with a Thai woman, but his life becomes a series of missteps. "What if depression . . . is just another penalty for a past life?" he thinks, in a Buddhist mood. With some distance, one can almost hear the wheel of life, the karmic cycle, like a gear in the novel.
Corinna is a young woman when her parents are killed in a hurricane in Florida in the 1920s. After their deaths, she goes to Thailand (then called Siam) to live with her brother, Owen, who works for a company that mines tin and makes screws (the same screws that would throw the planes in Vietnam off course). Corinna falls in love with her brother's Man Friday, and even more with Siam, but betrays both desires by marrying an Englishman and moving to England. "I was elsewhere anyway, stuck in longing," she thinks, listening to radio reports of war in her beloved country. "I saw that I had planned every second to go back. I was so homesick now, hearing the place names over and over on the radio, that the rest of my life seemed like smoke. . . . I sang out the right tones to the announcers when they said the names wrong."
And then there is Viana, daughter of Sicilian immigrants to the United States, whose first husband is a Muslim doctor living in Thailand. After he is killed in a car crash, she returns to America and marries Mike, who, like many of the characters in "The Size of the World," lives in a bit of a fog. After Sept. 11, Viana is carried off by the FBI for having e-mailed her Muslim relatives in Thailand. "I'd never exactly understood cyberspace," Mike thinks. "But here I was, swimming in it -- sink or swim -- floating on a lake as big as I ever could imagine, bigger. Look what love has done to me, I thought, but it was too small an idea for where I was."
"The Size of the World" is a wild ride. Following Silber's threads as they reach across time and space can feel somewhat precarious. But it's worth it. When you look down, you can see how far there is to fall and how tiny everything looks when your mind is in orbit. *---