Book Review: All This Could Be Yours
By Jenny Hayes
Jami Attenberg’s novel All This Could Be Yours takes place largely over a single day, a day which Victor Tuchman—a pretty terrible man— spends mostly unconscious and near death in a New Orleans hospital. The book bounces around between the points of view of the family members and various others who come into the scene—sometimes only tangentially—near the end of Victor’s life. This structure gives the book a loose, kaleidoscopic feeling, with a consistent narrative tone that keeps it feeling cohesive; the prose is clear and rhythmic, conveying each character’s point of view while occasionally interjecting its own.
We begin with Victor’s last conscious moments: “He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man, and he was tall, and he was pacing.” As the day progresses, these chapters grow longer and dig deeper, showing us more about the family members—primarily Barbra, Victor’s wife, who paces incessantly (working on her step count) in the hospital hallway; daughter Alex, a divorced mom living in the Chicago suburbs; son Gary, who lives in New Orleans but is away in Los Angeles working his film industry connections; and Gary’s wife, Twyla, who has remained in New Orleans and seems to grow increasingly emotional and over the course of the day.
Much of the book focuses on Alex, who seems somewhat adrift in her life, the type of person who optimistically writes “Figure your shit out” in her calendar but knows herself well enough to write it in pencil. Alex has deliberately distanced herself from her father, but she’s almost gleefully willing to travel to New Orleans when her mother calls to give her the news, thinking it’s a chance to finally get some answers: “Why had [Barbra] stayed with him? And was he even worse than Alex thought he was all these years?”
I was eager for these answers too—particularly to the second question; though we understand that Victor is not a good man, it’s not initially clear just what that means. He’s been involved in criminal activities, but is he simply corrupt, or deeply evil, or what? It takes 80 pages before we get a scene showing Victor’s “badness” in action, with Barbra recalling his aggressive, possessive behavior when the two were first dating. We see how she willingly acquiesced, attracted by Victor’s desire for control even when it led to violence, hating him and desperate to keep him all at once. When Alex is born, she attempts to make a deal with Victor, saying “If you ever even think of hurting her, just hurt me instead. But you leave her alone.” Barbra’s narration continues: “In the years to come, he abided by this, and Barbra suffered for it, but it was the one thing she could do for her daughter. And Alex grew up happy enough. Didn’t she?”
Just a few pages later, we see that he didn’t even keep that deal, as Alex sits by her father’s bedside attempting to make some kind of peace, which she does only because her mother promises that after, she’ll tell Alex all she wants to know. Alex is obsessed with getting answers, as if somehow they will fix everything for her.
While we learn about the truly awful things Victor has done, we never get back into his head. As repulsive a character as he is, I found myself curious to hear directly from his point of view, wanting to understand how he could move through the world so maliciously. But it also feels right that this man, who never cared about other people or how much harm he might cause them in the service of his own desires, isn’t granted the courtesy of an audience. Victor’s presence in the book is like a black hole, pulling those around him into his malevolent orbit. What’s inside remains unknowable, but in the end, who cares? Victor’s way less interesting than the people who survive him.
Most of the chapters follow Barbra, Alex, Gary, and Twyla, but a few show other people who aren’t part of the family. I enjoyed how the narration sometimes swooped into the minds of incidental characters who interact briefly with the family members and observe them—sometimes accurately, sometimes not. These glimpses reminded me how we’re all locked in our own stories, experiencing everything through our own individual lenses. While all these characters are engaging, and depicted with rich details, some of the non-family characters didn’t feel truly necessary to me. But they did provide interesting counterbalances to Victor’s family. I found this especially effective in a chapter near the book’s end, depicting a woman named Sharon. It’s illuminating to see a woman who repeatedly chooses, regardless of the cost to herself, to take no shit from any man. Sharon’s chapter also provides a wonderful echo of the book’s opening line, one that shows Victor’s lack of redemption: “He was a tall man, and he was an ugly man, and even in death he looked angry to her…”
All This Could Be Yours is not really the story of one bad man so much as a story of the complexity arising from a web of individuals. At times I felt like it could keep growing forever, expanding across the world, an infinite number of characters understanding and misunderstanding each other, keeping and learning secrets, making poor choices and then sometimes, if they’re lucky, making better ones. Attenberg’s narrative style strengthens the central tensions of the book—how you can’t ever know everything, and how life dishes up pieces that don’t fit neatly. Telling this story in a roundabout way rather a streamlined one lets the world in this book have an intimacy that feels familiar, because it feels like life.