According to its back cover, The Chairs Are Where the People Go is a book about philosophy. The copyright page, on the other hand, lists its three chief subjects as group problem solving, group relations training, and, simply, “happiness.” Amazon Canada files it under acting and auditioning.
As you can imagine, none of these categories is strictly false, though all are pretty misleading. So if you’re interested in reading the book, you’d better order it online, or else have someone in a bookstore or library put it on hold for you; the chances of figuring out what shelf it’s actually being kept on are essentially nil.
Questions of taxonomy aside, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, which was dictated by Toronto’s Misha Glouberman and transcribed by his friend (and acclaimed novelist) Sheila Heti, reads smoothly and intuitively. Its vision is clear, its approach neat and cohesive. The only reason it’s hard to classify is because it truly is one of a kind—which isn’t a surprise, considering that the book contains only and everything that Glouberman knows.
In person, Glouberman isn’t an opinionated person. Heti writes in the foreword that at parties, “he can often be found explaining to one person what some other person meant.” Yet he’s obviously also a keen observer of social and civic politics alike, and it’s to Heti’s credit that she was able to coax out these 72 micro-essays out of her friend’s mind and onto the page.
Chairs reads in many ways like a companion piece to How Should a Person Be?,Heti’s autobiographical novel from last year. Both books are concerned on a basic level with ethics: why people behave the way they do, and which principles ought to guide the way we (to quote Chairs’s subtitle) “live, work, and play in the city.” Both are pragmatic, but also exceedingly humane.
The difference is that while Heti, as a writer, works chiefly in solitude, Glouberman’s day job is teaching—everything from improvised theatre to noise music. As a result, he’s more interested in groups, and the surprising dynamics that spring up when strangers come together and do something spontaneous.
Many of the essays in the book are in praise of taking risks, especially in the context of games. “If you miss the ball playing baseball,” he says, “it doesn’t mean you’re playing baseball wrong. It just means you’re playing baseball.” Glouberman also speaks often about how people will surprise you, if you only give them the opportunity to.
Of course, one of the key ways in which people congeal into groups is in the political sphere. Glouberman details his own forays into civic activism, including a piece about his stumbling but ultimately successful campaign to get a nearby nightclub to keep its music to a reasonable volume. Along the way he gains respect for the club’s owners, and warns against mistaking “damage to the other party for advantage to yourself.”
While not without its occasional misstep, The Chairs Are Where the People Go is a series of much-needed tips for the infernal Rubik’s Cube our daily lives can sometimes resemble. It is pear-shaped, and pleasingly so. Glouberman is no self-help guru, but his advice is soothing nonetheless. And his book, at its best, offers small but vital adjustments to Canada’s social trajectory as we blindly launch our way across the 21st century.
Faber & Faber, 192 pp, $14.50, paperback(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, August 21, 2011) Aug 22, 2011