I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks mostly avoiding Pam Houston’s new novel, Contents May Have Shifted. I’d open it up, read 10 pages, start drifting and immediately look for something else to occupy my time. I dismissed it as too girly, too disjointed, too hippie-dippy, too damn flighty. Fifty pages in, I told several friends the book was boring. “Well written, but about as appealing as a Lifetime Movie of the Week.” Definitely not for me.
But at some point—I can’t say exactly when—I had a change of heart. Not unusual, considering much of the book is a meditation on relationships, past and present. My feelings for Contents May Have Shifted (W. W. Norton, $30) may not have been love at first sight, but I gradually bought in to the anecdotal nature of the novel and began appreciating Houston’s blend of facts and fiction. I gave in to this book. I let it charm me a little, let it woo me.
The main character in Contents May Have Shifted bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, Pam Houston. They share a name, a career in writing, a love of travel and the spirit of adventure. Though the book is fiction and marketed as a novel, it reads like an intimate memoir. While some passages are strongly autobiographical, others are fabrications. Houston has always blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction; she was frequently asked how much of her best-selling short story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness (Washington Square Press, 1992), really happened to her, and Houston eventually settled on “82 percent.” You get the sense that percentage holds true for much of her writing, whether she’s publishing travel essays or short stories.
The Pam in Contents May Have Shifted spends a lot of time away from home, traveling with friends and lovers all over the globe, from Taos to Laos. In all, she visits close to 20 states and such far-flung locales as Jamaica, Tibet, Turkey and the Kingdom of Bhutan. There are Buddhist retreats and massages, cowboy bars and camel rides. At the heart of the story is Pam’s budding relationship with Rick, a divorced man with a young daughter and a problematic ex-wife.
The book’s original title was 144 Good Reasons Not to Kill Yourself, and Houston—who frequently thinks in dozens—originally conceived of a work comprised of 144 chapters: 12 groups of 12 stories, each series beginning onboard a plane bound for somewhere. This Pam isn’t just endlessly searching; she’s filling her life with memorable experiences.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how much is true and how much is fake; all of Contents May Have Shifted feels real, and that’s enough. When I look back on my time with it, I’ll appreciate the time we spent together. ★★★☆☆