What started off as a writing exercise to produce new work for a reading in Madison, Wisconsin, became Pam Houston’s fifth book, the novel Contents May Have Shifted. Published in 2012, Contents is a collection of 144 episodic chapters, numbered and named for the destinations in which they take place. And because Pam—the writer and the character—thinks in 12’s “something to do with moons or months, and nothing to do with the apostles,” each group of 12 chapters is subdivided into 12 different chapters taking place on an airplane, named by flight number, showing the transit from one place to the next (260). In Contents May Have Shifted, readers follow the character Pam as she travels the world, experiencing holy place after holy place, taking part in secret healing rituals, and discovering her own innate spirituality in the meantime.
Spirituality and healing are not easily defined for Pam in Contents. Physically, she is ailing with the leftover ache of childhood abuse—back pain from an “accident” that occurred when she was four, which resulted in a three-quarter body cast. Emotionally, Pam is broken by memories of her alcoholic parents, failing relationships with men, and the thought of giving up. In Creede, Colorado, Pam wonders “whether the bigger problem is space or time” (14). Houston navigates both of these obstacles as she takes her character from place to place and one time to another in little snippets, which may feel random and, at times, disconnected; however, there is a science behind each fragment and its organization. The through-line of plot is established early on when Houston writes:
"I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds (like a woman), why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and worst days are always the same days, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to the predicament of loving (each other) the world." (14)
This becomes the catalyst for the beginning of Pam’s journey, though in the end, Contents May Have Shifted is not as simply reduced to a novel about leaving or loving, emotional or physical healing, but perhaps, it is more closely tied to the comfort and security of finding and coming home.
In Contents May Have Shifted, readers experience Pam jumping head first into the foreign and familiar. When connected, each isolated chapter is woven into the fabric of something bigger: 144 reasons to live. In the Bahamas, Pam swims off an archipelago and eats roast pig. In Jamaica, she smokes pot and watches the “sun move out of the clouds… turning the flowers a purple [she] thought existed only in coral reefs and crayons” (12). In Tampa, Florida, “a waitress named Shaila with beaded dreadlocks and bright green pumps takes both [her] hands and pulls [her] to the dance floor” (21). Pam “watch[es] the thousands of white prayer flags that line the river’s course, that stand all over town in battalions of forty to four hundred, that move in wind like something alive” in the Kingdom of Bhutan (26). She rides horses in Argentina; she rows past icebergs in Alesk Bay, Alaska; she drinks pickled Mekong water in Laos, and later, eats an antibacterial wipe, “suck[ing] every drop of juice out of it” (54). In Luang Prabang, Pam recalls “watch[ing] the Earth get made” on the Big Island of Hawai’i, how she was “standing right next to it, even straddling the little rivulets of it as it found its way through tiny gullies formed in the drying black glass of the prior day’s lava, [making] the whole thing so intimate it took [her] breath away” (76). In Tibet, at the Dalai Lama’s apartment, she is greeted by beggars: “Hello. Money,” they say (99).
Houston straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, as she’s been known to do in the past. But the Pam in Contents May Have Shifted has a graduated perception of relationships and life, leading readers to believe that the narrators from her stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness have found the patience they were always seeking to understand. As an echo to her short story “How to Talk to a Hunter,” the Pam in Contents questions her original reading of a Janis Joplin song, “what if … it’s actually a whole lot better to be free?” (263).
As Pam’s journey within the narrative develops, her growing understanding of love continues to manifest in the natural world around her first, and then blooms into relationships with others, lovers and friends, that are reciprocal. Pam receives body massages, experiences meditation, and muscle therapy in Tibet, Tunisia, and New Zealand, but it is when Houston begins to feel the repercussions of a real, healthy relationship that the novel lifts off and takes readers away.
Pam Houston is the author of five books of fiction and nonfiction including Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness. She teaches at University of California, Davis, in the Pacific University Low Residency MFA program and directs the nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Katrina Prow is a PhD student in fiction at Texas Tech University. Originally from California’s Central Coast, Katrina received her BA and her MFA in fiction from California State University, Long Beach. Her short stories and poems have been published in Pearl and Spot Lit Mag.