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

by Erica Olsen

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.

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