Matters of life and death: A review of Contents May Have Shifted

  • Contents May Have Shifted

 

Contents May Have Shifted
Pam Houston
320 pages, hardcover: $25.95.
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Pam Houston writes somewhat like a modern-day Jane Austen, although rather than merely dance at the ball, Elizabeth Bennet gets to go backpacking with Mr. Darcy in the San Juans (or perhaps take a trip to Tunisia or Bhutan). Beginning with her first book, the acclaimed short-story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness, Houston's female characters have been as fiercely determined in their search for love, and as painfully aware of the social constraints they face, as any of the Bennet sisters -- with the limited lifestyle options of Austen's day replaced by today's excessive freedom of choice.

Houston's new novel, Contents May Have Shifted, begins with an emergency landing on a 747. Like her creator, the novel's narrator is a writer named Pam. Pam leads a profoundly unsettled life: living in Colorado; teaching and writing in California and myriad other places; ending one relationship and learning to sustain another. The narrative is a sequence of brief chapters, each titled with a place name or airline flight number. Houston excels at dropping the reader right into the scene with precise and visceral details; the chapters have the impact of flash fiction. Taking off in a four-seater plane in Alaska, Pam sees a glacier, "huge and dirty and violent with stretch marks" -- a striking image of womanly force -- and tells herself, "remember this the next time you think it's over." Travel jolts her back into the world, into her own life.

Houston's breezy prose style has always masked darker emotions, and each chapter, it turns out, is a matter of life and death. Contents announces this early, in a chapter that's a "short list, in chronological order, of suicides I have known." Later, near the end of Contents comes the narrator's shocking statement about the numerous short chapters: "The first title for this book was Suicide Note, or 144 Good Reasons Not to Kill Yourself …" Pam's journeys add up to a documentary of sorts, an emotional testimony to individual lives and places that is necessarily episodic.

The novel ends, as it begins, with a flight. In contrast to the terror of that first, forced landing, the last chapter begins "Once upon a time," like a rueful but ultimately serene fairy tale that takes Pam on a round-the-world trip, then brings her safely back to earth. Along the way, the contents may have shifted, but she has earned her return to a life worth living.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...