The tagline for Deborah Copaken Kogan’s new novel, “The Red Book,” sums it up: “There’s the story we tell the world, and then there’s the real story.” Ms. Kogan’s novel, which chronicles the 20th reunion of four roommates from the Class of ’89…
But the main point is to compare, the thing we do reflexively to define our own achievements. Who’s happy, who’s depressed? Whose children turned out great, whose are still “finding themselves”? Who’s rich, who’s not? One contributor put it in simple binary terms: “Things I’ve done well/Things I’ve done poorly.”
…The hardest thing of all is to know what you actually feel. A sometimes ghastly mix of covert self-congratulation, awkward confession and wry philosophizing undercut by heavy-handed irony, Red Book prose can be an exercise in confessional self-concealment. What often emerges, after several throat-clearing paragraphs, is that life has not invariably been so good, whether the author knows it or not; and it’s that feature — the truth inadvertently revealed — that makes these thick volumes so horribly fascinating.
…Some entries in the 25th report strike a somber note: “Life has been in many ways harder than I thought it would be: anxieties about money and career, dark periods and wrong paths taken.” It also includes a disquieting new feature: a then and now of the class’s high school yearbook photographs set beside photos from the quarter-century mark. No Dorian Gray effect here: the aging process is alarmingly visible.
…And so we come at last to the Big 4-0. The issue now is no longer child care but parent care. Quite a few members of the class are on “the Retirement Runway” — some are unemployed, casualties of the ’08 meltdown: “With one of us out of a job, and the other working for alternately half or no salary, our home of 17 years began to feel like a noose.” Others are victims of (late) midlife crises: “After 38 years of marriage, Debbie and I are divorced.” Maybe they’ll get back together again like the Cooneys.
…What about the people who don’t write in? Bennett H. Beach, a member of the 40th Reunion Program Committee who keeps a complete set of Red Books on his shelf, suggests silence is a statement in itself: “There’s a certain amount of self-selection. We tend to hear more from people who’ve had happier lives, though you certainly also read accounts from people who’ve gone through difficult episodes.” And not everyone is nostalgic about their undergraduate years. “Some have outgrown Harvard and don’t think of it as an important connection in their lives,” he says. “Some are angry about the whole experience.”
Facebook serves as a modern version of this, feeding me continuous updates on my classmates’ lives. In the past 5 years, I’ve seen many engagements, weddings & babies. In close to real time.
It might be interesting to read an edited version of strangers’ real journeys through the years, however.