Dear Everybody by MIchael Kimball belongs to a long tradition of epistolary novels. Epistolary novels tie together letters or other documents into a coherent narrative instead of telling a story through a narrator. The advantage of telling a story through epistolary means is that the work, when done well, gains an illusion of realism. Rather than constantly wondering about a narrator’s function in a story, a reader can appreciate a tale knowing exactly who wrote the tale (within the confines of the story) and to whom it is addressed. The novel itself becomes less of an attempt to describe the world realistically as much as realistically capturing the nature of written correspondence.
The difference with Dear Everybody is that the illusion of a conversation is somewhat disrupted by the nature of the letters. In the novel, the narrator, Jonathan Bender, is sending out thanks and regrets to people he doesn’t expect replies from. He doesn’t expect replies because he is firstly a lonely, troubled soul who addresses to letters not only to people living and dead but entire states. He also doesn’t expect replies because when taken together, these letters serve as Bender’s suicide note. If this novel was merely that, the grim recital of the events leading up to a suicide, it would lose a lot of its power. But the letters contained in the short novel span a multitude of emotions. Everything from grief, anger, humor, and resignation.
The device of writing a novel through letters becomes less of an attempt to create realism and more a way of adding force to heartbreaking emotional center of the story. The letters are real attempts at communication, however misdirected. By following their paths, readers are brought into the center of the story in a way that is more immediate than a more conventional perspective. We are not just reading the novel, we are receiving the novel. The novel is, in a sense, addressed to us.
I personally greatly appreciated the way this story is told. By breaking the narrative into discrete little chunks, almost zen-like koans, we get the chronological events of Jonathan’s life but we also get an impression of his emotional states. I would also say that the form of the novel suggests other ways of telling stories. I just got done listening to an NPR piece on novels told through twitter messages. One of the most basic characteristic of humans is our need to communicate with other humans. Epistolary works are certainly a technique to explore the relationships between people.