On Forgetting, Remembering, and Accidentally Rereading William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow”

I’ve always prided myself on my good memory. When watching a movie, I can usually identify what other roles the actors in that film have played. To Kevin’s annoyance, I sometimes bring up details about our first year of dating that he can’t remember. I also have a knack for remembering song lyrics (and not just those written by Taylor Swift). Which was why I was so surprised to discover this morning that a book I had just finished—William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow—was actually a book I had already read 7 years ago, in 2013.   

Let’s rewind for a minute. I found a copy of Maxwell’s book in a Little Free Library near our apartment last month while jogging around the neighborhood. I go on a short run every day, mostly to get out of the house, and always make a point to stop by the many Little Free Libraries stationed in the area. From the outside, Little Free Libraries share similar qualities; they are often made of wood and shaped like a small house. The books inside are typically protected by a glass window that one can peer through to scope out what’s inside. I know of almost ten Little Free Libraries near me, and they’ve each taken on a distinct personality based not on how they look, but what books they hold. One library tends to contain books about food and, more recently kink. Another mostly has children’s picture books, such as Captain Underpants. A few of them often feature old paperbacks, from a beat-up edition of The Lord of the Rings to a copy of José Saramago’s Blindness. I almost never take a book from the libraries, and mostly just enjoy peering inside (I have a “window shopping” habit). But when I came across the quaint little house with William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow in it—I felt a spark light up in my brain.

My immediate memory of the book was that it was something I had once wanted to read, put some effort into finding, and never got around to reading. Or perhaps it was a book I had read, but not finished? Either way, the book sat in my mind like an unfinished task. So, I brought it home.

Over the course of reading the book, it became clear to me (or so I thought) that I had indeed never read it. This was, as far as I was concerned, my first time reading it. Occasionally I would come across sentences that seemed familiar, but I would attribute those rare flashes of recognition to quotes I had seen in passing on the Internet. When I closed the book this morning, I thought to myself—well, I’ve finally finished it.

Still holding the book in my hands, I suddenly had the idea that I should update my Goodreads account, which I used to update religiously but haven’t touched in ages. I might as well start by adding So Long, See You Tomorrow to my list of 2020 reads, I thought. Perhaps the fact that Goodreads even crossed my mind should have been a sign that somewhere deep in my unconscious, a string of my memory had been plucked. But either way, I looked up the book on Goodreads and saw—with a shock—that I had already read the book. In 2013. Not only had I read it, I had even written a little review:

I had described the book as a “hazy half-recollection,” a line taken from the fourth chapter of the novel, and my memory of the book can ironically be described as such. As I read my review of the book, I was confused by the line about the MOMA painting, which (having just finished the book) I couldn’t recall. Did I read the same book? I wondered aloud, while Kevin chucked beside me. I flipped through the first few chapters of the book again and realized that, yes, I do remember reading the part about The Palace at 4 a.m. But it’s a sculpture, not a painting. And for some reason, I had found it a more important detail back in 2013 than I do now. 

On August 4, 2013, I had noted on Goodreads: “the public library near where I live nearly lost this book, but I’ve finally found it.” Slowly, I began to remember. In my teenage years I went through a phase where I was determined to read books that were “contemporary classics,” books outside the syllabus that would help me become “well-read.” I remember pinpointing So Long, See You Tomorrow as one of those books. I also remember trying to find it at the Hong Kong Central Library, one of my favorite places in the world. I no longer know what I meant by saying that the library “nearly lost this book,” but one way or another I found it. Clearly, I also read it, and wrote a short review (as I did with every books I read those days) on my blog at the time, which is too embarrassing to hyperlink here, but here’s a screenshot of part of the review: 

Most of the review is identical with the Goodreads review, save for a number of quotes at the end as well as the first sentence: “I put a colossal amount of effort into hunting down this book, and it was worth the effort.” I could not have arrived at the same book, 7 years down the line, under more different circumstances.

If 16-year-old May had only known that at age 23, she’d find this elusive book by accident, without even trying to look for it, maybe she wouldn’t have searched so hard back then. And if 23-year-old May had not once read the book, and therefore not realized on a sunny December morning in 2020 that the book she just finished had once crossed her path, she wouldn’t be writing this blog post thinking about the unreliability of memory. 

But in a way, this is what So Long, See You Tomorrow is all about. 

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” 

The novel is told from the perspective of a grown man who cannot move on from the guilt he feels towards a specific moment in his childhood: his missed opportunity to extend a sign of compassion to his childhood friend Cletus Smith, whose father Clarence just killed the man with whom his wife was having an affair.

The narrator’s guilt seems small compared to the guilt that you’d expect Cletus’s mother Fern and her lover Lloyd Wilson (who used to be Clarence’s best friend) to feel. Fern cheated on her husband and then initiated ugly divorce proceedings that ruined Clarence’s life; Lloyd betrayed his best friend. It’s clear that these characters pay for their actions. But most of the novel depends on the narrator’s guilt, as well as the narrator’s imagined telling of the events leading up to Lloyd’ murder.

Reading my review from 2013, I realize that I now have a different reading of the book. Back then, I had placed Cletus at its center. But now, I see that our narrator’s imagination forms the scaffolding on which the entire story rests. By imagining what happened to Cletus, by going so far as to invent a fictional dog for him, the narrator uses storytelling as a form of absolution—for both himself and young Cletus. The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow wants to absolve himself a guilt he rationally knows he should not hold on to, and to absolve Cletus of a shame that should not have been his to bear. Although the novel is told from the perspective of an adult and revolves around the consequences of grown-up decisions (adultery, marriage, murder), it is Maxwell’s exposition of childhood and sympathy towards children that pull the book together.

In 2013, I described the narrator’s description of the whole affair as a “recollection,” but the more accurate word I would use now is “imagination.” The narrator doesn’t “remember” what happened to Cletus; he reads some newspapers from 1921 and then proceeds to invent the rest. In the 7 years that have passed since 2013, I have grown more suspicious of “unreliable narrators” and perhaps become one myself. I’d also like to think I’m a more careful reader, although I know I’m still not careful enough. Like Maxwell’s narrator who compares his childhood guilt to his feelings as an adult, I now compare how I received the book then and how I read it now to arrive at some understanding of what it means to grow up, experience loss, and crave understanding.

In 2013, I had identified one of the novel’s later passages as its “best chunk.” It’s the moment after Cletus has to leave his childhood home (and his father) to start a new life. A series of losses, things being “taken away,” mark his transition from childhood into adulthood. Yet I also think of this as the scene where our narrator starts to undo his imagining by removing the elements that populated his storytelling. The fictional dog goes away, as do the everyday objects that populated the narrative: the sound of crows, a pitcher, the smell of hay. Without these elements, does the narrator still have a story to tell?

In 2020, the passage from the book that I may consider the “best chunk” can be interpreted as the opposite of the section above. This passage, which appears early on in the book, actually describes the narrator’s own childhood—before he begins to tell the story of Cletus’s. In the passage, he describes how everyday objects allowed him to cope with the grief of losing his mother. Commonplace objects, from the two big elm trees to the trumpet vine by the back door, help him go from one day to the next.

Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar—an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects—with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night—I got from one day to the next.”

Whereas Cletus’s childhood is marked by the disappearance of familiar objects, our narrator is comforted by the reappearance of commonplace things, and I think this is the crucial difference between both boys. Throughout the novel, the narrator continues to make things appear, i.e. tell his own story of what happened to Cletus, because this is the form of comfort and support he understands. And although he is guilted by his failure to reach out to Cletus back then, through storytelling he tries to give Cletus everything (including a dog)—although it all has to end, inevitably, in disappearance.

Memory is a flawed instrument, and also our most precious tool for holding on to people and places long gone. But one who seeks the truth cannot always depend on memory. Unless we have documents from the past to corroborate or correct our beliefs (be it a 2013 Goodreads review or a newspaper from 1921), what really happened or what we wished had happened may only transpire through the stories we tell ourselves. I’m glad I read So Long See You Tomorrow for a second time, even though it felt like the first time. Perhaps 7 years later, I’ll revisit the book (and this blog post, and the one before it) again, my memory of it all no doubt shaped by “a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

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