Dinah Lenney objects her life. Not objects as in no, as in against, as in protest. Objects as in things, as in the tangible. In her collection of essays, The Object Parade, Lenney takes objects to define different moments in her life, to metaphor them, to bring new insight to old stories. “Things, all kinds—ordinary, extraordinary—tether us, don’t they, to place and people and the past, to feeling and thought, to each other and ourselves, to some admittedly elusive understanding of the passage of time” (xiv). Because the essays are not in chronological order, the stories incited by objects such as a flattened spoon, a 1929 Steinway baby grand piano, human ashes, a breakfront, and a metronome weave with and circle around each other. They tumble together to create connections. These objects not only connect her to her past, but to the idea of a past. She states, “Thirty years ago, just out of college, I bought this jacket in that tiny junk shop, which means it was already soaked in secrets, reeking of the past” (106). What Lenney is discovering are the ways in which an object “smells like memory” (170). More than musings, though, Lenney’s stories interact with each other in a maze of meaning. A Mobius strip of memory. What Lenney has created in The Object Parade is a linguistically rich meditation on all types of human connection—both with ourselves and each other.
Important note: this book isn’t an inventory. Instead, the objects function as trailheads to Lenney’s life stories. What distinguishes this book from other texts that use objects to enter into a story (think: Phillip Lopate and Sven Birkerts. Think: first writing assignment for your Freshman English Comp class) is Lenney’s ease with prose and her flawless ability to stitch the stories together. Yes, Lopate and Birkerts are also fantastic writers who have dissected an object’s meaning in some of the most foundational and transformative essays in this genre, and yes, perhaps you nailed that Freshman Comp writing assignment, but Lenney’s range of narrative voice—personable, curious, entertaining, sarcastic and belly-revealed-to-the-world type of vulnerability—brings a certain uniqueness to each offering. So yes, while there are a few texts similar in concept, the ease and artistic focus of Lenney’s prose is fresh.
In “Piano, Too” Lenney begins the essay in a relaxed and thoughtful tone as she describes the tension created when her daughter no longer wants to engage with the family tradition of playing the piano. “In the relative calm of one nearly perfect evening in early September, Eliza announced that she wouldn’t ever play the piano again, we couldn’t make her. She’d gone downstairs, homework completed, and banged her way through the first ten of twenty minutes, her back to a sky streaked with orange and pink” (45). Traversing through a web of a sub-plots about parenting, Lenney continues to come back to the disagreement, though her tone slowly shifts each time. At one point she sounds more philosophical; “How much of this has to do with life in the womb—or with birth, or birth order, or gender, or anything else—I cannot say” (52). But as the intensity of the tension climaxes, her tone slips into a sardonic one. This is when Lenney’s biting opinion on the matter arrives. She says, “suppose…I let her quit the piano and she turns out to be a horror anyway. Big picture, if she’s not going to speak to me whether she plays her scales or not, better to be estranged from one’s mother with a decent musical education than without one, yes?” (52). Through her progressing voice, the reader’s understanding of Lenney multiplies, but even more so the fluctuating tone rouses a profusion of the reader’s emotional responses.
For instance, while the fact of a dead dog is not the most poetic of circumstances, Lenney is able to bring beauty into this situation through her fine execution of following a sentence’s sound, by keeping a steady rhythm. “This is her collar, removed eleven years later and still faintly sour, that odor, greasy and rotten, foul and sweet—it used to stick to my fingers, I remember; poor thing, she suffered in the heat” (95). This example is, indeed, the epitome of how important and impactful a sentence’s tone, rhythm and pace is within a piece of writing.
While the objects are where memories begin to unfurl, at different points in the text, Lenney complicates this theme by questioning her approach to the past. “How do you hold on to something that has so little to do with who you really are?”(14) Ultimately, she doesn’t concretize her recollections, but rather keeps them alive and transforming through questioning herself. “What if I’d chosen other things?” (195). Yes, why these objects and not those? Why understand how our identities form because of this object and not that one?
And so I have to wonder if The Object Parade will become a meaningful object in Lenney’s life. And what about the objects discussed within it? What about them will change because she has shared their stories? What objects will stay and which ones will disappear? When does one object become more meaningful, or when and why is it that they can eventually fade into the background of our lives, can become a thing that no longer points towards something we find profound?
“We attach meaning to things, and things to meaning: endow them one way or another as if to prove to ourselves that we are who we are; this life really happened; we really traveled this far in time and space” (197). I believe in the concept Lenney is pointing to here. As I closed the cover of her book, I realized how a new object in my life has quickly started to carry meaning. Through my journey of experiencing this book, I started to realize what objects in my life represent my stories. Because The Object Parade incited curiosity about my own past, it is now marked with meaning. I endow the text and my experience of it in this critique as if to prove to myself that I am the reader I say I am; this book really exists; I really traveled this far in time and pages and came to an end in which I will continue to carry the book and all of its meaning with me until I reach my own end.