When, “midway upon the journey of our life/[He] found [himself] within a forest dark,” Dante Alighieri went epic, envisioning a descent into hell, a spiritual purgation and eventual transcendence. When the two central characters in Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s first novel in seven years suffer their own life crises, they head to Israel, search for meaning and for immanence, and wind up in the desert. Like the poem from which it borrows its title, Forest Dark is also epic, though in its own way: quiet, eerie, touchingly inchoate. It is an epic of loneliness, a testimony of and to longing that remains unfulfilled. The novel is bifurcated, telling, in alternating chapters, the stories of Jules Epstein—not so long ago a high-powered and wealthy law firm partner, of late a retired philanthropist looking for the right cause—and Nicole, a successful novelist plagued by writer’s block and a silently failing marriage. (It is perhaps in poor taste, but impossibly tempting, to observe that Nicole’s situation evokes Krauss’s own, given her well-documented divorce from Jonathan Safran Foer, who published his post-divorce novel Here I Am last year. It also seems important to note that, whereas Foer dealt with his hurt feelings by imagining the destruction of Israel in his book, Krauss deals in altogether more human and humane troubles.) Krauss’s great innovation is that the two strands never explicitly intersect, instead running parallel, provocatively echoing each other through places and objects and ideas without ever meeting. Both Jules and Nicole spend stretches of time at the Tel Aviv Hilton, the Brutalist “rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv Coast.” (A series of increasing close-ups of the hotel appear early in the novel.) Nicole means to write a book about the hotel (or else set at the hotel or else inspired by the hotel), a place that holds “a kind of mystical aura” for her, the place from which she imagines she might be dreaming the entirety of her daily life. But the book refuses to be written, and so Nicole takes off from her Brooklyn home, leaves behind the husband who disappoints her and to whom she is a disappointment, leaves behind the two young sons who otherwise keep her tethered, in the hopes that, in Israel, at the Hilton, she will be able to focus and finally write. Jules, for his part, intends to use the Hilton as headquarters, a base from which to award the remains of his fortune (the $2 million left over after a giving spree that has alarmed his lawyer and alienated his son) to some worthy institution or another in honor of his parents’ memory. Neither remains at the Hilton, attention caught by quixotic projects, presented by fateful encounters. For Jules, the thread begins back in New York, when, at an event for “some fifty people representing the American Jewish leadership” to confer—which is to say, have a three-course meal—with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he meets Rabbi Menachem Klausner. His last name, Klausner informs a reluctant-to-engage Epstein, marks him as one with lineage that can be traced back to the dynastic line of King David. Once in Israel, Jules reconnects with the rabbi, spending a night at Gilgul, Klausner’s retreat in Safed, the mystical desert center for Kabbalah studies. There he meets a beautiful woman, the rabbi’s daughter, Yael, who impresses him more than the rabbi’s disquisitions on the finite and the infinite. Yael, it turns out, is working on a film about the life of David, “the most complex, fully wrought, and fascinating character in the whole Bible.” (That Jules’s first view of Yael—she’s emerging from a bath—replicates David’s initial vision of Bathsheba is an effective coincidence.) And suddenly, Jules is “new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry.” Nicole, for her part, becomes involved with Eliezer Friedman, possibly a former Mossad agent, possibly a retired professor of literature, certainly a man who relates a nearly impossible-to-believe story about Franz Kafka. Friedman claims to have access to the works hoarded, in a cat-infested apartment, by Eva Hoffe, daughter of Max Brod’s lover Esther, inheritor of Brod’s estate, jealous possessor of a priceless trove of Kafka’s manuscripts. In the least outlandish of his proposals, Friedman suggests that Nicole prepare an ending to an unfinished Kafka play, which is scheduled to be made into a film. How all of this turns out is not really the point. Krauss has always been a writer interested in the hidden, spiritual dimension of things, and her work concerns itself with the mystical, the metaphysical, the mysterious. The secret inner life of people, places, and objects preoccupies her far more than the directly observable. In her last novel, Great House, a writing desk served as a totem, imbuing the lives of the individuals who posses it at various moments with the possibility of grace and tempting them with damnation. In Forest Dark, she goes even more abstract, working less towards a climax than an epiphany. The novel starts out with a great deal of texture, with meticulously arranged details; it presents, initially, as a keenly observed and reported chronicle of two accomplished but unfulfilled lives. But as it progresses, and especially as it nears the end, it abandons any pretense of interest in connecting threads and cause-and-effect payoffs. This could be annoying, perhaps, but Krauss’s great, fearless gift is to work a motif until its essence reverberates throughout. Thinking about an improbable story Friedman relates, Nicole compares the tale to the conventional, accepted one and finds that “the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the more beautiful shape—more complex, but also more subtle, and so closer to truth. In light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” And so too of Forest Dark: it is beautiful and complex but subtle and so closer to truth. It is perhaps not particularly believable, but it is elegant and shimmering, a slant of light shining long enough to make us wonder.
1. What shape does hell take? In Norse mythology she—the goddess Hel—is a girl with a face half beautiful, half rotted away. Brave warriors had a place in Valhalla, whereas Hel's domain is for those who did not die honorably in battle. Greek mythology does not allow for such clear-cut distinctions. Death sends you to Hades: you are down, unless by some act of godly intervention your fragments are thrown skywards to settle as a constellation, not quite a god nor solely a symbol. But what if hell could be contained within a frame—constructed on an axis of text and image? That question of containment, of framing and fragmentation shapes the genre-defying form of Orpheus & Eurydice: A Graphic-Poetic Exploration (OE), by the artist Tom de Freston and his partner the poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Published as part of Bloomsbury’s Beyond Criticism series, the book is a both a study of mythic narrative structures and an act of mythmaking in its own right: de Freston’s images follow Orpheus down to Hades while Millwood Hargrave’s words give voice and agency to Eurydice. Essays by academics and cultural critics are interwoven with the narrative, and just as there is no such thing as a self-contained myth disconnected from a wider network of stories, so the book is just one part of an ongoing collaborative project. OE is an exercise in world-building, using film, performances, and exhibitions to test the dimensions of the myth: the myth of the man, the musician, who entered the underworld to rescue his wife from the clutches of death. I'm stuck on the cliché, "clutches of death." Transmitting a myth quickly will do that to language—make it portable, acritical, squeezed into conventional structures. Who's to say this is a myth of a man, his song, his rescue mission? By letting the story divide and multiply into frames and fragments, the book permits the myth its slipperiness; indeed, in the opening pages of the book, the narrative seems to have slipped from its template entirely. We see a man, a painter, willing his wife back from the dead as he daubs her image across a triptych. We will know him as Orpheus, a self-indulgent slob dressed only in a pair of grubby white briefs. The woman on the canvas is Eurydice, she wears the dress she died in. And then she too, slips—her body falling until she is no longer contained by the painting which, wiped of its image, becomes a threshold to the underworld. Orpheus enters because he has read Eurydice's poetry, which tells of a man who looks back and loses his wife forever. He sets out to remake the myth and rewrite his wife, rescuing himself in the process—and yet it seems the story is doomed from the start. A misplaced minotaur is appointed as Orpheus’s guide, a botched version of Dante’s Virgil, falling into frame in a manner reminiscent of a powerpoint presentation. Together they'll follow the thread, down to catch a wife, a wife in free-fall through a grid of graphics. De Freston's images are loud: there will be scenes of screaming beasts, crashing canvases, bodies bound in kaleidoscopic contortions. Yes, Orpheus can sing—one wailing o which extends wordlessly across several spreads—but he is unable to listen, unable to exit his self-centered orbit. His story is told in soundless freeze-frame; it is Eurydice who speaks, who utters her own images of "welling mud," "parcelled buds," "tongue through teeth." Handwritten on notepaper in a sotto voce script, Millwood Hargrave’s poems are placed unobtrusively between pages—and yet they are less like pressed flowers than gaping mouths, blooming wounds. Her language is the traumatic meeting between body and spirit, the temporal and eternal, lust and loss, a language that voices Eurydice’s ambivalence as Orpheus stumbles in the dark towards her. She knows that "an e is not just a broken o," and when o aligns with e she will not come quietly. 2. This is a radical retelling, but its radicalism is not a matter of "reinterpretation." It is true that we are inclined to read Orpheus more sympathetically—his role as lover and musician is enough to prove his virtue, and his actions appear to meet the criteria for the archetypal tragic hero: he risks all in an act of superhuman bravery, and loses the one he loves in a moment of human fallibility. However, for a story to be reinterpreted it must first be fixed, and it is the essence of myth to be shifting and contradictory. To set out to create a new version of a myth would be to misunderstand the nature of the medium—reinterpretation is inherent in the telling itself. In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Orpheus is said to be a coward who, rather than resolving to die for love, chose to save his skin and enter Hades alive. Indeed, Orpheus’s eventual end—torn limb from limb by the frenzied female followers of Dionysus—does seem ill-suited to a hero. When his fragments were eventually gathered by the muses it is worth noting that it was his lyre, not his body, that made it to the status of a constellation, and it is this ambiguity between heroism and ignominy, pure art and bodily abjection, which has made Orpheus such a fertile subject for writers and artists. The preface to OE places the book as one part of a mythic evolution, referencing Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (1922), Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950), Anaïs Mitchell's album Hadestown (2010) and David Almond's young adult novel, A Song for Ella Grey (2015). The writer Ann Wroe anatomized Orpheus’s shape-shifting form in her award-winning "biography" Orpheus: The Song of Life (2012), and has contributed an essay for OE in which she turns her attention to Eurydice. Looking back to the original meaning of Eurydice's name ("wisdom" or "wide ruling"), Wroe asks not what OE makes new, but what it retrieves. “This meaning of Eurydice, dark germinating wisdom, has long been lost,” she writes. “But we see glimpses of it here." And so, to retell is never truly to make new—we are bound to an eternal return, a recurring backwards glance. The radicalism of OE, I would argue, is a result of placing those remembrances of the darker parts of the myth within a structure that retains volatility, that stays unstable. The reader is thereby granted not only an alternative reading of the myth but an alternative means of constructing narrative and making sense of what we see. In short, an alternative approach to reading. 3. Existing in the shadowy space between art and literature, text and image, graphic narratives are drawn towards those dark corners, to the parts of a story usually left unseen. There is something inherently subversive about the form, due partly to its detachment from genre, partly to the potential for dissonance between text and image. This dissonance lends itself to humor—I’m thinking of the cats that appear in Regina Doman and Sean Lam’s graphic biography Habemus Papam! Pope Benedict XVI (2012), and the phallic intrusions in Piero’s graphics for Introducing Roland Barthes (2006). Even when posing as "illustration," as demonstrated in Maira Kalman’s graphics for The Elements of Style, Illustrated (2005), the temptation to “read into” the text can prove too hard to resist. [caption id="attachment_97636" align="aligncenter" width="570"] "He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug." From The Elements of Style, Illustrated by Maira Kalman.[/caption] Whether or not we refer to graphic narratives as comics, the form has always contained elements of darkness. In their "wordless novels" of the early 20th century, artists Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward made darkness both a matter of style and content; their heavily inked woodblock prints do not shy away from scenes we might rather not see, whether a public lynching, police brutality, or a gigantic man pissing on a city. Graphic narratives are unique in their ability to combine dark humor and unflinching representations of trauma, and yet it took until 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize, for this quality to be taken seriously. Since then, the form has been appreciated as a powerful means of addressing political upheaval and human suffering: Joe Sacco's Palestine (1993, 1996) paved the way for the practice of graphic journalism, and important recent publications have included Threads: from the Refugee Crisis (2017) by Kate Evans and Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (2016) by Sarah Glidden. In his reports of his experiences in Bosnia and the Middle East, Sacco does not pose as an authority or an all-seeing eye. Instead, he enters his narratives as a character, a diminutive nerd in blank Goggle glasses. Likewise, the graphic narrative’s style of “truth-telling” is less about revelation than disorientation: it makes darkness visible and disrupts conventional patterns of interpretation. As the narrative progresses across the page, time is represented spatially—the trouble is that space is liable to becomes unstable. In OE, the underworld is an atemporal zone with no fixed spatial footholds. The grid offers no protection against falling out of frame, and images transform—without warning—from line drawings, to digital renderings, to photographs—photographs that, with their deep chiaroscuro, appear to take on the quality of sculpture. That restless attitude to medium and representation is a symptom of the form’s entrenched self-referentiality; whether or not a graphic narrative is evidently “experimental,” it is always a comment on the way information is communicated and consumed. As readers fill in the gaps between frames and reconcile text and image, they, we, become complicit in the manufacture of meaning; the extent to which we are made aware of this process depends on the degree of disruption to the narrative flow. We are equally complicit when sequentially connecting the words of a line of text, or organizing the the simultaneously presented elements of an image. However, by combining these two processes, graphic narratives make the act of reading manifest. They reveal it on the surface of the page. In Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (2015), the first doctoral dissertation to be produced “entirely in comic book form,” that self-referentiality reaches its apotheosis. As the end product of his PhD at Teachers College, the book is a radical assault on academic conventions, seeking to actively deconstruct “boxed-in” thinking with an argument that leads the reader down, diagonally, across the gutter of the page and into empty space. By allowing “the visual to provide expression where words fail,” Sousanis argues, we free ourselves from linear thought processes, creating a networked, “multidimensional” mode of thinking by combining simultaneous and sequential patterns of interpretation. “Lacking access to ‘as it is’,” he writes, in a text box surrounded by crowds of eyes, “we make do with ‘as it appears.'” Making do, in this case, is less about making the best of a bad situation than taking advantage of space between appearance and reality, and seeing what we can make it do—seeing what we will read between the lines. It took time before graphic narratives were deemed worthy of critical attention. Now, Unflattening and OE prove that the form is a mode of critical enquiry in its own right; a recognition that, in turn, makes way for a more nuanced understanding of “creative criticism.” Such criticism does more than just aspire to artistry, throwing in a few metaphors or enacting its subject matter. Instead, it weans the reader off a reliance on the text, converting them from the role of receiver to that of critical thinker: someone who is aware of their own process of reading, whether of an image, a text, or the world around them. Good philosophy has always worked in this way, pushing beyond the literal meaning of the text to force the reader to address the question on their own terms. However, what might be achieved in philosophy through complex literary techniques—I’m thinking, for instance, of Søren Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms—comes naturally to graphic narratives. By definition, the form works beyond the level of the text, making us readers of our own act of reading. What we read into the reading, however, depends on the world we have entered. Whereas Unflattening is a utopian world of sense-making, synthesis, and empathy, OE is less interested in synthesis than the act of ripping. In Plato's Phaedo, to live is to be torn asunder by the opposing forces of time and eternity. OE places us on either side of the rupture, and tells us to look down. The rip, the split, the tear, become an aesthetic, a subject, and a mode of thought: this is a world where making meaning is as much about rupture as it is about connectivity, where even the idealized act of "collaboration" is a type of compromise, a separation from oneself. After all, what sense is there to be made of a world where bodies break, are forgotten, exploited, and where love can tear you in two—three—four —or fragments too small to see? In this world, the “o,” the perfect whole and empty hole, is something to be feared: it is all Orpheus has left when he exits, in one piece, from the underworld, doomed to a life of singular solitude—that is, until he is torn into multiple pieces by the maenads. Perhaps, to submit to the ripping is the most honest way to live: to enter the rupture and look death in the eye. What we see is a living hell. What we see is the world we live in.
If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you. Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research. This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade. In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book. Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work. Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.” Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, "'A Right Fit': Navigating the World of Literary Agents".) In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel. Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times. Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one: While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books. Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers. First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”). I've been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues. Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover. So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.
1. I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless. One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love. Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension. Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead. The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us. Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace. Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power: Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up. Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, "These children have been tampered with."…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book. The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…” Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it. Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence. The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much. However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.) 2. It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us. The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror. There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison: I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others. I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness. 3. Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails. Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf," could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it: I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them. At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015: What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze...In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe. And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just to let her breathe.
This month, my family celebrated a milestone we long believed we wouldn’t reach: the 40th birthday of my older sister. We were gathered for our annual summer vacation at the Jersey Shore, a boisterous, humid week spent crowded together in a rental house, breaded with sand, mixing rosé spritzers and grilling steaks. I’ve learned not to expect to relax, exactly. Seven days under one roof with family—including the five small children now among us—can feel by turns like a profound gift and a penance. It’s less "reset" and more "deep dive"—into our issues, our values, our shared history. At least this year no one was in diapers. For the birthday, we bought lobsters and a sheet cake, and hung dollar-store streamers over the dining-room table while the kids jumped on the couch to Rihanna, batting around yellow smiley-face balloons and snapping glow sticks to make them luminescent. Starting when I was 13, my sister’s heroin addiction infused our lives with pain, confusion, terror, exasperation, and guilt. I spent high school sleeplessly mastering the art of codependency—a somewhat natural inclination for a middle child—absorbing my divorcing parents’ anxieties, keeping my sister’s secrets, and self-destructing in small, private ways that wouldn’t bother anyone, nursing all the while a growing set of bitter resentments. I felt as if the entire house—a giant repository of my mother’s tears—was resting on my shoulders, like one of those really big fish tanks. If I’d shifted too much beneath it, it would’ve shattered. So I didn’t. For over a decade, the family navigated the periods of hope and operatic despair that characterize life with an opiate addict. (It’s a pattern I would play out again—surprise—in romantic relationships with men.) But then, miraculously, my sister became one of the few to climb out. I spent part of our week “down the shore” reading Mayhem: A Memoir, Sigrid Rausing’s quiet, meditative new book about her brother’s drug addiction and its impact on their family. Oblivious to traffic, I stood at the kitchen island in the mornings, underlining and starring passages on almost every page. Owing to the many similarities between our lives and the profound (and rare) consolation I find in reading about addiction from the perspective of family members, I was often short of breath with feelings of identification, recognition, validation. I nodded and sometimes cried. I wanted to invite the author over for tea. Like me, Rausing is the middle of three children. Also like me, she was trained as a cultural anthropologist and her primary preoccupation was the passing fantasy of Soviet socialism. (I read her first book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, in a graduate seminar. In Mayhem she writes of her research site, “The state of Estonia mirrored my own internal state: there was little or no welfare and no viable security forces.”) We are both now editors. She also grew up, as I did, feeling her kinship to her siblings like a visceral charge coursing through her blood. “The three of us were made from the same basic ingredients,” she writes. It was “as though mixing my mother with my father could make only this one combination, more or less, of height, of green eyes, of brown hair.” As a result, like me, she spent a great deal of energy chasing the elusive answer to the riddle of her brother’s addiction. Those exercises in futility form the bulk of the book—riveting reading for me, though perhaps not for all readers. Unlike me, Rausing, the owner and publisher of Granta, is heiress to a multi-billion-dollar beverage-packaging fortune, and spent her idyllic childhood summers not on the coast of New Jersey, but among a cluster of family homes in the Swedish countryside. Her descriptions of those summers capture nostalgia for a strapping, athletic youth spent swimming, crabbing, and doing gymnastics in Marimekko T-shirts and shorts. They also deftly evoke the subtle sadness of wealth and the pale, modest glamour of 1970s Scandinavia. Meandering through the past and the present, Rausing tells the story of her brother Hans Kristian Rausing’s addiction to heroin and cocaine, and his ultimately disastrous relationship with his first wife, Eva Kemeny, an American socialite he met in a rehab center when they were both in their 20s. The couple married in 1992 and had four children before relapsing together in 2000 with a New Year’s Eve glass of champagne—a small, innocent gesture that can send addicts’ lives careening out of control. They were active philanthropists and steadfast contributors to addiction- and recovery-related causes. In 2007, amid concern that they were unfit parents and following an excruciating court hearing, Sigrid and her husband, film producer Eric Abraham, were granted custody of their four children. It was a major life change for all. Everything that had been “a bit ad hoc” with one child suddenly required precision. “Five children,” Rausing writes, “make a little school, a herd, a flock, a group.” Hans and Eva were devastated and angry at the loss of their children, but remained unable to achieve enough stability or sobriety to make a good-faith effort to get them back, at least according to this account. In May 2012, Eva Rausing died of a heart attack with the foil and wire wool used to smoke crack in her hand and cocaine flooding her system. Hans was there at the moment of her death but, unable to cope with the reality of the situation—and, to be blunt, almost certainly on a crack run himself—he laid her body on their bed and covered it with clothing and other household objects, and sealed off the room with tarps and duct tape. When Hans was pulled over two months later, police tracked the smoking crack pipe to the couple’s five-story London mansion, where the 48-year-old Eva’s decomposed body was found. She was identified by the serial number on her pacemaker. Hans was charged with obstruction of a proper burial, but the twin privileges of whiteness and wealth and the (surely not unrelated) goodwill of the judge kept him from serving time. Rausing has clearly written Mayhem to wrest this gruesome story back from the British tabloid media, who have already mercilessly picked it apart. But she does far more. In this slim, stoic memoir—epigrammatic and laced with literary and scholarly references—Rausing thoughtfully, painstakingly, works a deep groove into the stubborn surface of certain bedeviling questions: “How do you write about addiction?” “Who can help the addict?” Is addiction a genetic predisposition, a personality bent, a “form of possession,” a “culture of rebellion?” Why does the language of 12-step recovery so often feel inadequate to describe the anguish wrought by the illness, or to soothe? From the wreckage of her brother’s illness, she forges a new self, one she doesn’t always like—particularly as she’s fretting over the children, afraid they’ll become addicts (another thing we have in common). Against a massive, varied literature of addiction that sidelines family members’ experience, even as it drives home the notion that addiction is a “family disease,” Rausing edges gently, gingerly toward a theory of us, not just them. “I suspect that the state of not being an addict is actually as scientifically interesting as the state of being an addict,” she writes. It’s one of the most radical lines in the book. In a recent New York Times piece on Mayhem titled “A Wealthy Family’s Battle with Drugs Laid Bare, But to What End?” Dan Bilefsky explores the stakes of Rausing’s memoir, asking whether she’s “defiled the sacred rule of the 12-step universe,” where addiction is supposed to remain anonymous. It’s an inane question, given how public the Rausings’ trials, figurative and literal, have been. He also discusses the reaction of Eva’s family—her father, a former PepsiCo executive, tried to stop the publication of the book, and has recently called it a “cold, hollow and unsympathetic depiction of our beloved daughter, Eva.” He has said that he believes she would be alive if the Rausings had not taken her children from her. Bilefsky seems bored, if occasionally moved, by Sigrid Rausing’s struggle. “She fantasizes about kidnapping and saving her brother,” he writes. “She never does.” To me, these are the words of someone not in the immediate reach of this monstrous disease. If so, lucky for him, but it will be the case for fewer and fewer people as the opiate epidemic creeps insidiously into more homes. The urge to save our loved ones, and the inability to do so: this reckoning will define more and more lives. Bilefsky’s piece is brief and not wholly ungenerous, but it reminded me of the ways that addiction remains surrounded by a powerful mystique. We are more willing to take at face value and more likely to relish the first-hand accounts written by addicts and alcoholics themselves—they contain more drama, more highs, and addicts are notorious for what Rausing calls their “narrative knack”—and less inclined to want to listen to the nervous recollections of the fatigued family left behind to clean up the messes, to raise the children. The pain of the codependent is often minimized, marginalized, and importantly, feminized. At my family’s birthday dinner, I lifted my glass to make a toast and we all began to cry. I told my sister I was grateful for her, proud of her for saving her own life, excited for her next chapter. We toasted my parents, too, for their unending caring and patience. “Well, you know what they say,” my father joked, wiping tears, “the first 40 years are the hardest.” Not tough love, just love—this has been the ethos of our family, and it’s the thing to which my sister most often credits her recovery. As memoirist and recovery guru Tracey Helton Mitchell wrote of her mother in the New York Times last year, “When I was finally ready to stop drugs, she didn’t have to ‘accept’ me back. She had never quit being a guiding force in my life.” After dinner, we went downstairs into the cellar made of breakaway walls that are the requirement of post-Hurricane Sandy architecture, where the kids sat my sister beneath an open beach umbrella, crowned her queen, and performed a play. Then, accompanied by my little sister on acoustic guitar, my five-year-old nephew sang “Hallelujah,” which he’d prepared specially for the evening, his voice heading cracklingly falsetto-ward as he reached each verse’s tender crescendo. I tried not to sniffle too loudly into the iPhone video I was recording. At the end, the children encircled my sister in the dark bunker of a basement as she made a wish and blew out her candles, and we hooted and cheered. I thought of Robert, the handsome, wild-eyed fiancé she lost to an overdose many years ago, and all the birthday candles he hadn’t blown out. That tragedy spun our lives into chaos and darkness but, like the Rausings, it was both our loss and not our loss. After all, we were spared. We got to keep our girl. In that fact alone, there is tremendous guilt and a twisted grief that is still unspooling. Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. Each year that my family preserves in amber moments like these is one year farther out from the worst. And yet, addiction is always menacing, always right there. In many ways, Rausing’s haunting memoir is doing the only thing we can in the face of such a threat: gather our memories like specimens in a lab and work with them in various combinations, trying to stave off the disease, trying to figure something out. The passage of time shifts us in relation to events. But, as Rausing writes, “time does almost nothing on its own. You need to think it all out.” In 2014, following the publication of her second book, Rausing told the Guardian, “Addiction is a very mysterious existential condition and up close it is very hard to understand.” Striving to build an archive that might help us better grasp that mystery, or simply to live more serenely beside it, is not a thing we ought to fault her for. For some of us, it’s the only kind of vigil we can keep.
“All good novelists have bad memories.” —Graham Greene 1. Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel, The City Always Wins, capturing Cairo in the convulsions of the revolution, brought back a bad memory of Srinagar. In the summer of 2010, one still, sickly hot evening in the capital city of Kashmir, I found myself in the working-class neighborhood of Batamalyun. The modestly built house of bricks formed the dead-end of the dust street. I went inside and found Fayaz Rah, the 39-year-old fruit vendor who I wanted to interview. A solidly-built man, he sat cross-legged in the sitting room, his back pressed to the wall. “At eight,” he said, “one does not understand what protests during a curfew could mean.” Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of August 2, his eight-year-old son, Sameer, had left the house to play with his friends. In a back alley, Indian paramilitaries, angry that since 2008 Kashmiris had been protesting and hurling stones and slogans of aazadi, independence, at them, caught Sameer and beat him with bamboo sticks. Inside, Fayaz continued to narrate the story. Outside, the night began to fall. His quiet voice floated in the long, darkened room. I became restless and fidgety. I wanted the roof to fall down; and I wanted the walls to crumble. I wanted him to stumble or stop altogether, because in my mind I was already stumbling and failing to write the essay I so badly wanted to write. “He had bought a candy…,” the father cried. “I’d not know. But when the ambulance [van] brought Sameer home and I held his dead body in my arms, I found the candy in his mouth. It was half-broken and stuck between his upper teeth.” 2. The City Always Wins follows Khalil, an American-born young man of Palestinian origin. A lover of revolution and jazz, he, and a group of lefty friends, tirelessly film videos and record interviews of the revolution to upload a website called Chaos. Hamilton, a film maker by profession, arrests readers with auditory and visual details of the city flooded with democratic rage against Hosni Mubarak’s protracted presidency. But the novel is not just an intimate act of witness to the outpourings of the people protesting in Tahrir Square and the military brutalities and massacres that followed; the novel’s strength lies rather in the moments that unfold within the quiet of houses rather than the roar of the street, for instance, when Khalil, accompanying a French documentary crew talks to the father whose son has been killed. Abu Bassem’s dignity is somehow unbearable. He doesn’t cry or curse or swear vendetta. But he is not defeated. Khalil feels somehow animal in contrast to the older man, his stillness, that he must be enraged for him, that he must do the crying, the stumbling. During the interview, the French director, a technology-laden neo-Orientalist, gets impatient and irritated while Khalil and Abu Bassem speak in Arabic, leaving him out of the conversation. Kahlil feels “suddenly, burningly foreign, a tour operator cashing in on other people’s misery, a cheap Virgil to guide foreigners through the city’s labyrinth of martyrdom.” Journalism and reportage are arguably more suited to the act of witnessing, while fiction is a place for quieter recollection and contemplation of the self and what has become of it through said witnessing. Throughout the book, Hamilton’s voice has two distinct and somewhat conflicting tendencies. One is the desire to be a direct witness to the revolution, to report the street without the façade and filter of characters. The other is to analyze the act of witnessing by measuring the impact it has had on the lives of the characters and the decisions they make. With its quickly shifting points of view, its staccato vignettes and serrated phrases soaring into lament and lyricism, City reads best in those sections where the intensity of witnessing is informed by the mood brought about by the psychological transformation: the opening passage, for instance, wherein Khalil’s girlfriend, Mariam, grapples with the bodies remorselessly "crushed under tanks" during the march to Maspero. The urgent rendering of sensual details hits one like the miasma of death hanging in the morgue. She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely, is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call…Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced. Hamilton has channeled the effusive energy of the revolution to create a narrative of stunning fragments. But because the desire to be a witness outweighs the desire to put the witness to a novelistic examination, the fragments hardly coalesce to constitute a novel. The joy lies in reading the vignettes individually, lucent and often phantasmagorical, which fail to string together to make a seamless sustained narrative in which one could follow Khalil’s physical and psychological journey through the potentially hurting landscape of the city. The result is that Khalil, though unhinged, dispossessed and selflessly utopian, is not realized to the full arc of his rage. With the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the energies of the revolution are frustrated. But as the need to replace Morsi becomes clearer and Cairo begins to cheer for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Khalil feels lost and misdirected. After breaking up with Mariam and witnessing the death of a close friend, he returns to New York. Hamilton recreates chunks of Khalil’s beleaguered consciousness with the fidelity of an impressionist, and one’s knowledge of Khalil at the end is almost the same as it was at the beginning. Between him and the reader are the smoke-blurred, blood-spattered streets of Cairo longing for liberation, the city itself the most vocal of all the characters. Khalil’s voice is interchangeable with the voice of other characters. It is the authorial voice that dominates and diminishes him. At times, the dialogue is too dramatic to be credible. Novels make certain demands as to how to properly employ memory. To fictionalize a bad memory like the one recounted at the beginning of this essay, mere impressionistic rendering of how the boy was bludgeoned to death will not do. One must put to the novelistic scrutiny the complex churning within the self (of the father) the killing set in motion and find ways to trace the transformation over a period of years in the language of gestures, human, silent and concrete. One must dwell in the darkness of the sitting room that’ll haunt the narrator, his horror and shame untold, as he walks the roads of the city on which Sameer once walked and played. The artist, unable to tolerate reality, forgets long and forgets strong. The mind with its uncanny mechanisms, buries the bad memory under consciousness, until a familiar color or caress, a smell or a tone calls it all back again, unwarranted, and in the febrile beehive of imagination, the bright buzzing bits of memory curl into the shape of the novel. Hamilton does not forget enough what he has witnessed recently and literally. It is the memory itself that is so visceral and brutal and excessive that, in its ethereal rendering, he succeeds to shock and harangue, creating a vivid illusion of fiction.
When you’re living through watch-it-through-your-fingers reality what makes for good escapism? I’d like to make the case for a memoir about life with a mortally ill child. And let me add: I am a new mother. I am still poised halfway between awe and terror every time I look into the face of my eight-month-old—awe that he exists in all his joyous defenselessness, terror about whether I can keep him existing and maybe even preserve some of that boundless baby joy. Watch-it-through-your-fingers reality doesn’t help a mind already teeming with all the many ways a child can die before breakfast. I would have thought the last place I’d want to go to escape was a book about, as author Heather Harpham puts it, “a girl with an expiration date.” But Happiness is not just that. It is also a book about one of the healthiest romances I’ve ever seen committed to paper, about neighborly grace, about balancing one child’s needs against another’s. It is a book, most of all, about the value of that most commonplace and staggering of miracles, “the spontaneous eruption of an individual consciousness out of nothingness.” It begins with two interleaving narratives. There is Harpham, alone in California, having just given birth to her seemingly perfect daughter, unwilling to sleep because, “What if she sighed or pursed her lips or splayed her fingers or jerked her arms upward?” At 3 a.m. a nurse enters to say that the doctor wants to run some tests. This is the last moment Harpham will have with her healthy child. From then on, hers is a child with a terrifying, undiagnosable illness; Amelia-Grace cannot make sufficient red blood cells on her own. No one can say why she is dependent on the transfusions of washed blood she must receive every three weeks, but without them she becomes “wan and listless, a dollop of a baby who said and did very little.” The second narrative explains why Harpham is alone through this ordeal, why she and the love of her life are “semi-strangers living on separate coasts who happened to have a baby in common.” It’s a complicated situation, one to which Harpham does subtle, meticulously fair justice, but the gist of it is that Harpham’s partner of several years, the novelist Brian Morton, is “a man with a gift, and the dense garden of habit grown around it for protection.” In other words, he doesn’t want children. Even when Harpham finds herself pregnant with his child. Eventually the narratives merge. Four months after she’s born, Morton meets and falls in love with his daughter, and through his love for her reconciles to the distractions of fatherhood. He and Harpham begin to create a shared world, one dominated by a single question: “How could we make our girl better?” When the answer is finally delivered, it is as unpalatable as it is uncertain: They can have another child, hope this one is not afflicted with the same undiagnosable disease as their first and that his blood marrow is a match for hers. If they are lucky in this ghastly gamble then they can undertake the even ghastlier risk of a bone marrow transplant. There is between a 10 percent to 20 percent chance that the transplant will kill Amelia-Grace. But without the transplant, there is only a 50 percent chance of her surviving until 30. I am aware that so far I am not making a very good case for my claims of escapism. But take, to start, the humor Harpham can forge out of even the bleakest moments, such as this about her newborn: “Her cotton ball heart beat happily on...filling with the blood of an anonymous stranger. Gracie was surviving, literally, on the kindness of strangers. This was stranger number two. I tried to fathom who these people keeping her alive might be...Whoever they were, I wanted to make out with them. Just for a minute or two.” Or look at what she can spin out of moments of touching normalcy, creating a fully rounded human of her daughter, affording Amelia-Grace the dignity of naughtiness when she might have more easily cast her as sainted suffering child: “’Gracie, we don’t want to hurt the baby.’ She gave us a winning smile. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I do want to hurt the baby.’” More important than the humor itself, there is what it signifies, the staggering sanity. Harpham at one point praises her three-year-old daughter for her ability to, “find the speck of gold amid all this dross.” It’s a characteristic the daughter surely inherited from the mother, and the beauty with which Harpham sees the world makes hers a healing mind to inhabit. So, for instance, in contemplating whether she can trust Morton enough to let him into her and her daughter’s life after he’s absented himself from both for far too long, she reflects that life with Morton, “held the potential for being a surprising life, a life that was the product, the gift, of multiple imaginations.” Or of the stem cells as they enter her daughter’s body, the start of a process that may end up killing Amelia-Grace within the next few days or weeks: “Once the cells enter the bloodstream, they are self-aware. They know they are stem cells. They survey the body, perceive where they are most needed, and collectively, as a flock of birds bends and turns, they go there...En masse they bore out of the vein wall, burrow through muscle, through fascia and bone, to reach their destination. They do this of their own accord. Without any medical inducement or coercion. They do this just to be nice.” They don’t, of course, but Harpham is herself so thoroughly nice—or, rather, so thoroughly kind, so thoroughly fine and decent a human being—that in the moment we believe in the grace of this vision. Nor are we surprised to learn that she wrote this book in large part to thank the many doctors, nurses, friends, neighbors, strangers who showed her family kindness as she tried to save her daughter. (I hope you’ll forgive my telling you that Amelia-Grace survives. I worry you won’t dare read the book otherwise.) Most memoirs aren’t written because of a surfeit of mental health. Harpham’s would be an interesting and invigorating psyche to inhabit even in the best of times. But it is a particularly soothing place from which to contemplate our current political predicament. The sense of betrayal, of vulnerability, the guilt and pity and worry for those who will continue to be hardest hit, the most vulnerable members of our community—all of this makes Harpham’s memoir feel not just moving but necessary. “There was no one,” Harpham observes on her first night as a mother, her ticking time bomb of a daughter nestled against her. “And then poof—her.” That this can be said of every person on earth —every sick child who needs health insurance to survive, every body in the path of a nuclear missile, every soul housed in a sort of skin that conjures senseless fury—is not a fact that is likely to be lost on most of us. This awareness, after all, is precisely what makes our current predicament so unbearable. And this, finally, is what makes Harpham’s book the perfect form of escapism from our inescapable collective tragedy. If the tragedy is a system of governance that puts precious little value on each precious human life, what better escape could there be than to soak in the most concentrated form of such valuing, the maternal love that is spread over every one of Harpham’s pages? Halfway through the book, Harpham and Morton decide that they cannot in good conscience have a second child whose reason for existence is, at least in part, to save the first. Days later Harpham finds herself pregnant. (Harpham’s reproductive system has an impeccable sense of comic timing.) As she weighs what to do about this pending being, who will eventually be her irrepressible son, Gabriel, there is a paragraph so perfect, so affirming, so buoyantly brave I found myself repeating it as a sort of mantra. Yes to another child who might be sick, yes to having two children under two years old at the same time, yes to Brian. Yes, yes, yes to drool, late nights, mutual accusation, yes to euphoria, yes to the probable, the impossible, the impractical....Yes to the whole crazy, doomed mess. Yes to whoever had chosen us, yes, we chose you back, yes. Yes to life ...yes to yes. I say yes. If she can, surely so can I, and so escape from cynicism and despair a little longer.
The dead chase the living in Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s new novel about the legacy of trauma. In Ward’s last novel, Salvage the Bones, the main character is preoccupied with the mythological tale of Medea, a woman left heartbroken. Here, Ward traces an American highway odyssey, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Parchman Farm, the notorious state penitentiary. Bouncing between the past and present, between ghosts and breathing bodies, between drug-induced fantasy and raw, heartbreaking reality, Sing, Unburied, Sing follows a family that seems to descend from earlier novels like Beloved and As I Lay Dying, uniting past and present suffering. Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy. All of Ward’s characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing live with trauma. Pop, the patriarch of the family, grandfather to Jojo and Kayla, remembers his time in Parchman Farm penitentiary and his friend Richie, a young boy who died there. Mam, his wife, is dying from cancer. Their grandson, Jojo, takes care of his younger sister, Kayla, while their neglectful mother, Leonie, deals and consumes drugs. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who was shot and killed as a teenager; he appears when she is high, often looking disapproving. When Michael, Leonie’s lover, and Jojo and Kayla’s white father, is set to be released from Parchman, Leonie takes her two children on a journey across Mississippi to bring him back. Along the way, the dead are revived, and they fight to return from the prison with them. Ward allows the reader to imagine the persistence of ghosts in every facet of this family’s life. Ghosts exist in Pop’s stories, they arrive in a drug-induced haze, they sit like birds on the trees around their home and sing. These ghosts are physical manifestations of the family members’ psyches and symbolic of collective trauma endured by previous generations. They bring with them a restlessness, anger, and desperation—depicted with visceral emotion in the figure of Beloved, decades ago. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, too, was a marker of the pain her mother had endured. But unlike the haunted house in the first few pages of Beloved, where even the sideboard would react to a house’s inhabitants, the ghosts of Sing, Unburied, Sing float, existing as part of the history of a given space without making a direct impact on the space itself. The ghost of Given appears only to Leonie at first, his arrivals and departures indicative of Leonie’s own guilt at her inability to be a good mother and daughter. While ghosts of the past trouble the present, magic and ancestral mythology eludes Leonie, a loss that stings deeply. Mam, bedridden for most of the novel, is Leonie’s connection to her spirituality, her conduit to her faith. Mam comes to Leonie in her dreams “calling on our Lady of Regla. On the Star of the Sea [...] she was holding me like the goddess, her arms all the life-giving waters of the world.” The Lady of Regla, a syncretic Catholic-Yoruba figure, brings mythological stakes to their journey to Parchman, the “Star of the Sea” meant to guide voyagers home. But, unlike The Odyssey, in which the gods and the supernatural often intervene to help the hero along his journey, Leonie and her children face their journey alone. Leonie’s ability to see her brother’s ghost is not a gift, it is a burden weighing down on her through the journey, a source of guilt and remonstrance. Ghosts and supernatural creatures are restricted to imagination and memory in this novel, they cannot intervene. The characters are left to their own devices without hope of supernatural intervention. The narrative has a persistent tone of hopelessness, much like the mood of the doomed and destructive families of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s families were living in a collapsing post-Civil War world where their legacies were in decline. “The reason for living is to get ready to stay dead,” Addie Bundren said, emotions repeated in Sing, Unburied, Sing where the living are engrossed by stories of the dead, and Mam waits for death with resignation. The ghost story fits into a realistic framework, because Ward places limits around ghostly intervention. These limits allow the reader to question the position of ghosts in relation to the characters. Are they truly present? Or are they in the characters’ minds? Does it even matter when the deeper, larger grief is prevalent in both the living and the dead? As Baby Suggs says in Beloved: “Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with a dead Negro’s grief.” Ward’s work is full of stories of the dead, specifically of young black men. In her memoir Men We Reaped, published in 2013, she wrote about the tragic and violent deaths of men in her life, including her own brother. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Parchman Farm represents collective grief and trauma, as a space where slavery is still alive and well. Like Faulkner resetting time in The Sound and the Fury, Ward blurs time, inserting memories into the present. “[How] could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once?” says one character. The past in Parchman Farm is the main catalyst for the story. Pop relates his experiences there to Jojo in the beginning of the novel, and Jojo is fascinated by this history. For Jojo, Pop’s dark past marks an entrance into manhood, where he aspires to arrive at one day. But for Pop, a man bearing the burden of imprisonment, saving his grandchildren from similar fates is a primary concern. Jojo ultimately faces Pop’s past when he arrives at Parchman Farm. For the older and younger men in Ward’s novels, history lives on in their bodies, and the stories they transmit through them. So Jojo finds Pop’s world not just through his second-hand version of events, but by arriving at the space that imprisoned and traumatized their family. By invoking Morrison and Faulkner for new readers, Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present. Often the book relies too much on old symbols. Pop’s memories of Richie and the actions causing the young boy’s death draw almost too heavily upon the inspiration of Beloved. Suffering is a continuous process of engagement with trauma, facing, fighting, and sometimes succumbing to it. In the foreword to Beloved, Toni Morrison described writing about slavery in a way that kept memory alive: “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead.” The dead in Sing, Unburied, Sing are needy because they have no choice. Trauma demands attention, yet that attention brings chaos into the characters’ lives. The act of writing and reading such stories also demands that oppressor and oppressed address their positions in an unjust society. Literature and history occupy the same role, as record-keepers of injustice, and of experiences. These records allow us to understand why past and present trauma are ultimately spokes in the same wheel.
In the climactic scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—soon to be re-released on its 40th anniversary—a massive UFO lands at the base of Devils Tower in Wyoming. Scientists watch in awe as long-missing pilots from the infamous Flight 19 exit the mothership. A grey-haired, goateed man in a blue suit walks forward between the rapt congregation. He lifts a hand to his face, as if to pause on his chin, but then puts a pipe in his mouth. That scientist was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the man responsible for the film’s namesake classification system. Hynek’s cinematic cameo only lasted six seconds, but his spirit infects the entire film. A new biography reveals how Hynek’s life and legend exemplify a lost era. UFO sightings still make the news, but Hynek was something different: a public intellectual who told us to watch the skies. Steven Spielberg explained he “was very influenced by Hynek because he was not looking at UFOs as science fiction, but looking at them as science speculation.” In The Close Encounters Man, Mark O’Connell notes that Spielberg’s friend suggested the title to the director after reading Hynek’s book The UFO Experience. Upon learning of the film’s production, Hynek wrote a curt letter to Spielberg, quipping “Although I am pleased that this recognition is being given to my terminology, I would really have liked to have been informed of this rather than read about it in a national magazine!” Spielberg apologized, made his creative team read Hynek’s book, and even hired the Northwestern University astronomer as a technical adviser. He could not have made a better choice. Hynek truly embodied the “contradictory nature of scientific inquiry and investigation in the twentieth century, with its simultaneous dependence on and rejection of imagination and wonder.” Hynek had earned his doctorate in astrophysics at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, and began teaching at Ohio State University in 1936. His first government work was during World War II, when he was the reports editor for development of the top-secret proximity fuze at Johns Hopkins. His contributions were brief, but as McConnell demonstrates, cultural history is often the result of unlikely coincidence. Several years later, when an Air National Guard pilot named Capt. Thomas Mantell tragically died while chasing a “metallic” object “of tremendous size,” the Army Air Force tried to claim that he’d crashed his P-51 “while mistakenly pursuing Venus.” The Air Material Command’s newly formed flying saucer unit, Project Sign, needed a scientist to validate their prosaic conclusion, but “where in Central Ohio could the air force find a professional astronomer who already held a high security clearance and could go right to work with a minimum of red tape?” Hynek accepted the position, and saw Project Sign as a “golden opportunity to demonstrate to the public how the scientific method works, how the application of the impersonal and unbiased logic of the scientific method could be used to show that flying saucers were figments of the imagination.” For the most part, Hynek toed the party line and pleased his bosses, casting away sightings with mundane explanations. He was responsible for “astronomical assessments” of select cases, and played no part in the infamous “Estimate of the Situation,” a 1948 internal Project Sign report that concluded UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin. The report was rejected by top brass, and led to a less open-minded military take on UFOs. Project Sign was replaced with the appropriately named Project Grudge: “Articles placed in popular magazines portrayed flying saucer sighting reports as pranks, mistakes, and delusions, and reassured the public that there was nothing to fear.” Meanwhile, Hynek was back in the classroom, and “used his UFO work as a teaching tool of sorts.” In 1952, after a flurry of sightings that included radar-tracked objects over Washington D.C., UFOs became news again. Civilian research groups were being formed across the country. The CIA formed the Robertson Panel, a short-lived investigation that concluded UFOs did not pose a national security threat but, as McConnell writes, “public interest in UFOs—and the public’s growing tendency to report UFO sightings—was of grave concern.” Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official investigation into UFOs, was then formed largely as a public relations front, a misdirection. The Air Force didn’t have to work too hard; these were the years of the Contactee movement—people who claimed they had been invited on spaceships and given secret knowledge about the galaxy. Pulpy UFO books and “alien invasion movies had taken the country by storm.” Time and Life magazines were speculating about other worlds. UFOs were silly entertainment. Hynek “chafed at the miserable circumstance of having to serve a disagreeable master in order to gain access” to the Project Blue Book files. He had to be a public skeptic—see his logic-twisting designation of a Michigan sighting as “swamp gas”—but in private, his views were evolving. After thousands of sightings yielded a fair number of authentically “unknown” cases, Hynek was convinced of two things: UFOs were misunderstood by the scientific community and the public, and they were worthy of serious research. The government had other ideas. The 1968 Condon Report concluded that the Air Force “should terminate Project Blue Book and get out of the UFO business for good.” Hynek was disappointed, but as part of the system, knew such a conclusion was inevitable. In the years that followed, Hynek continued researching on his own, leading to the classification system that so inspired Spielberg. Hynek is a deserving subject, but O’Connell’s book also is notable as a methodical history of the UFO phenomena in America—a story so often overshadowed by the Roswell incident. (It is worth mentioning that Roswell was not even on Spielberg’s radar; even though the incident occurred in the summer of 1947, researchers showed little interest in the alleged crash until 1978). McConnell’s a great storyteller, and that’s what needed in a history of American ufology: someone to connect the dots into a narrative. McConnell reveals how, even in the days of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Percival Lowell’s speculations about intelligent life on Mars, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between science fiction and science fact in the world of UFOs. What Close Encounters of the Third Kind and events like Roswell offer are narratives, stories to help tether the often disparate, mysterious world of UFOs to lived reality. Spielberg’s film doesn’t quite feel dated, but does feel like it came from a more optimistic time. In one of the first scenes, young Barry Guiler awakens in the middle of the night. His toys are spinning and marching, animated by some mysterious force. He goes downstairs. Punctured Coca Cola cans drip on eggs, lettuce and meat strewn across the kitchen floor. In Spielberg’s vision, UFOs and their occupants are more mischievous than nefarious. Like us, they are curious. During the Condon study, Hynek traveled to Colorado with his colleague Jacques Vallée, the esteemed French astronomer and ufologist. They were talking about what got them interested in science, and Hynek’s confession was telling: “So many people get into science looking for power, or for a chance to make some big discovery that will put their name into history books...For me the challenge was to find out the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain.” Like a great scientist should be, Hynek was in awe of the world—of all things seen, and unseen.
Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s bracing, miraculous debut, starts out typically enough, laboring in that old vineyard of novelists—infidelity. Set in Dublin, the narrator Frances is a 21-year-old poet invited to the home of a magazine writer, Melissa. Melissa’s husband is the handsome Nick, “a failed actor whose marriage is dead,” and who at times seems “embarrassed to be alive;” in other words, a man ripe for an affair. Things build precipitously. Rooney has a gift for pacing, and the illicit builds with each chapter: The glances that last a few moments too long. The intrusive thoughts. The texts ignored; the texts whose importance is denied; the texts pondered over; the texts eventually responded to. The engineered encounters. The specially directed compliments. The chest-tightening jealousy. The waves of despair borne in secret. The denial to friends, and to oneself, that it is anything serious. The struggle to bury a revealing look, as to not be found out. “Our eyes seemed to have a conversation of their own.” Frances, self-described as plain, analytical, and cold, advances through the early stages of the affair as she does through the entire book, with minimal introspection. As she wades into uncharted waters, she is often at the mercy of feelings she can neither name nor reign in. After seeing Nick perform, she finds herself licking her lips, playing with her hair, feeling “pure and tiny like a newborn baby.” She makes subtle rationalizations—Nick and Melissa don’t even sleep together; Melissa’s had affairs in the past; Melissa, therefore, is beyond her universe of moral consideration. Frances’s torpedo-like trajectory toward Nick’s marriage fills her not with pause, but with morbid curiosity. Soon she and Nick are in bed together, Frances asking, “Will you die if you can’t have me?” Reading this story in Rooney’s swift voice is like watching a young deer slide down an icy hill toward a highway. I didn’t just read the book in a single day. I read it in a single day on two separate occasions, three days apart. Rooney reportedly wrote the bulk of the book in just 3 months, and it shows in all the best ways. Conversations with Friends reads like a very well-written, lucid email from a close friend—the kind of email you save and never delete. Part of this frictionless feel is Rooney’s talent, but technique figures too. Here are three people talking at a party: Laura said it was nice to meet me and I said: your baby is so gorgeous, wow. Nick laughed and said, isn’t she? She’s like a model baby. She could do ads for baby food. Laura asked me if I wanted to hold her and I looked at her and said, yes, can I? Another technique is the hominess of Rooney’s metaphors. She never reaches far for them, and they are always spot on. Writing emails with Nick was thrilling “like a game of table tennis.” Sex for the first time makes the insides of her body feel like “hot oil.” “The sun bore down on my face like a drill.” Her naked body, “looked like something that had dropped off a spoon too quickly, before it had time to set.” In bed Nick “touched me cautiously like a deer touches things with its face.” When her eyes meet with Nick’s it feels “like a key turning hard inside me.” Rooney was a champion college debater and she has written about having a “flow” when assembling arguments, the words arriving almost without conscious effort. The flow is evident in the novel, too; she seems to have zero literary anxiety. As Rooney writes, you do not feel, as with so many writers, that she is looking over her own shoulder, questioning her own word choice, critical of herself, happy with herself. There is no struggle. The light, contemporary style also has the benefit of blending seamlessly with texts and emails, which appear quoted at length in the book. I read the book entirely on my phone (both times), now and then toggling back and forth with my own email and texts, and this seemed appropriate. The rapid, linger-on-little style is of a piece with the character of Frances, who often aims to stifle it. She finds it “embarrassing” to admit she has feelings for Nick. If the moment gets too dramatic, there’s a flippant quip, or an economic theory to put things on ice. After her first kiss with Nick, she waits to feel any sadness or regret. “Instead I just felt a lot of things I didn’t know how to identify.” Right before the climatic moment of the affair, “I told him I didn’t want to be a homewrecker or whatever.” Frances is a poet by profession—it’s too bad her poetry is never quoted here. One imagines crisp lines about icebergs, chrome, and cool glasses of water. Confronted at one point about her affair by a friend, Frances observes, “I felt sorry for all of us, like we were all little children, pretending to be adults.” Pretending or not, the pain is real. This book is a dagger.