1. A spill
I’m drinking coffee in bed and reading The Reactor. I feel so close to everything Nick Blackburn writes that when he describes lying in his bed and stretching both arms out, I want to call out to him, ‘be careful not to spill the coffee!’
The previous page in the book ended with, ‘You’ve been dead for a year and a half.’ The next reads, ‘I’m crying a bit writing this, Dad’ (pages 14, 15).
2. It’s not that I’d wish this knowledge on anyone
I tell a friend that I am writing this book review. He has read The Reactor and says he didn’t think it was exactly a book about grief, that it was mostly about distraction – YouTube and Alexander McQueen and other personal obsessions. I had started working on this piece by reading Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found and so I doubt myself, wondering if I pitched the wrong books. Then I realise, I remember, the friend I am speaking with has not crossed the precipice of grief, so he doesn’t fully see how it is everything. Like how Blackburn describes the clean-up efforts after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. They began by removing the first three centimetres of the topsoil from the ground, and what was exposed beneath it was covered in sheets of black plastic. ‘You look at it and it’s still there and it’s still there. It’s still there. It doesn’t go away’ (page 210).
3. It doesn’t go away
When Schulz’s book came out in January 2022, I remembered I read an excerpt of it in the New Yorker, where Schulz is a staff writer. It made a huge impression on me at the time, but it feels like it’s been a while. I search for it only to see it was published in February 2017. Time is long and publishing schedules longer, but when I realise how many years Schulz has been working on this memoir, the only thing I can think of is how we are constantly promised things get better over time.
And maybe they don’t. I feel inconclusive about how finite the healing of all wounds is meant to be. Lost & Found is an account of the period in which Schulz’s father was ill and ultimately passed away, which was also when she met her partner, and how the two things could happen at the same time. Her book, divided into three sections (Lost, Found, And) collapses this time in her life to explore how ideas on losing (a set of keys, a sense of self) and finding (a rare object that fell from the sky, or love) encompass so much human emotion. Lost, the first section, describes long road trips to visit Schulz’s father in the hospital and spend time with her family. There is a partner accompanying her on these car rides, supporting her through it, listening and reading poetry to her and being present, but this partner only really takes shape in the second part, Found. Then she becomes a whole story. The second time Schulz meets the woman who would become her partner (which turns into what she calls a 19-day-long second date), she says that when she walked into her arms for the first time, there were ‘two almost contradictory emotions: that nothing in the world could feel more natural; that nothing in the world could feel more astonishing’ (page 123).
Schulz sustains this tone, which takes so much pleasure in describing everything around her with this intense piercing gaze of love, throughout the book. She spends dozens of pages describing her father with the affection of a daughter, the observational instinct of a journalist and the endless awe of words that she seems to have inherited from her father, a Jewish European immigrant to the US who spoke multiple languages, loved witticisms, and was an avid reader. For weeks, I tell everyone around me about how she describes the books her father had left behind, their spines always broken because he would fold a paperback the way New Yorkers fold a slice of pizza. On her first kiss with her partner: ‘I will not try to describe it, except to say that I could’ (page 114). On the absence of her father when she eventually marries her partner: ‘his loss was palpable to me throughout, but only in the way that the moon is sometimes visible by day: faint and strangely beautiful, there only because it is always there’ (page 213).
4. On time
Schulz doesn’t really give readers a timeline of what happened when. The sadness isn’t eclipsed by the joy, nor is the joy fully tainted by the sadness, and it’s hard to accept that it’s possible to feel so much loss and all that happiness at once, but we do, and in a way that is Schulz’s whole book, like the contradiction of her partner’s arms. Not a coming to terms, but rather a setting of these things side by side. It’s another form of seeing two contrasting emotions without needing – anyone would fail – to reconcile them; seeing this clash as inevitable, as life.
5. On telling
‘One of the difficulties of writing about one’s own emotional life is that it is impossible to know how representative it is – how much it overlaps with or diverges from everyone else’s inmost experience,’ Schulz writes towards the end of her book (page 226). But it feels like she doesn’t need it to be representative, it feels like she just wants to tell. To tell a reader how things feel – painful and real and impossible and yet still drawing all of her attention. There’s a tender sweetness to how she describes falling in love (like making pancakes at three in the morning). There’s an amazing thoughtfulness to how the presence of loss can grow, then grow into part of you, like a foreign object that won’t dislodge from the body, the skin ultimately growing around it.
How to read about another person’s inmost life? Schulz describes common experiences for most people: grief when they’re unlucky, falling in love when they are. Still, these moments in life feel personal and unique. When you’re 20 and falling in love or have your heart broken for the first time you’d never, ever listen to anyone older who would tell you what it is and will feel like. Because how could they know. And still, I worry Blackburn might spill my cup of coffee and I cry even when Joan Didion doesn’t describe crying on the night her husband died in her book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Embossed in gold on the back cover of my 2012 Fourth Estate edition is a quote from the text, in fact the lines Didion keeps returning to, the ones she wrote just after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack: ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ And it’s the dinner – of course it’s the dinner, the mundanity of it – that makes Didion’s account so relatable because it breaks through this veneer of the safety of day-to-day life. How the daily always seems like it is expected, unswerving, but obviously that’s not life. Life is what Blackburn tries to describe in fits and starts, life is what my friend thought of as the work of distraction (intellectual fascination and YouTube and every small detail of the world around him which is always a sign that the mundane is fragile and could, at any moment, be coloured by some experience that you will forever try, perhaps fail, to describe).
6. More on time
It’s been seven weeks since my dad died. (It will be longer by the time this review is published.) I am the only person living in this particular time zone.
7. And more
Roland Barthes kept a grief journal after his mother died. It lasted almost two years, from October 1977 to September 1979. In his New York Times book review of Mourning Diary (Journal de deuil) (2009), Dwight Garner describes how it ‘feels like a first draft: it has repetitions’. I am perhaps unkind in cutting up this quote – Garner then further explores the feeling of a draft (in a book cobbled together from loose pieces of paper Barthes kept everywhere after his mother’s death). But I am stuck on the mention of repetition because how else to describe the sense of time conditioned by illness and loss, the two of which stretch for unexpected periods and are still surprising when their full impact is felt.
Caring for my father, I felt the days just disappeared. I didn’t read or write much, I talked to few people, I just made soup and did pharmacy runs and rushed over when he needed anything. At the end of every day I would be exhausted, still couldn’t think of a single thing I did. The hours stretched and the days passed and so did time. So little happened and time never sped up.
And all I could think about was Helen Macdonald staying indoors with a goshawk for days on end. There are drawn curtains, a television on and newspapers scattered, cups of tea gathering, sleep an unscheduled fretful thing. The time they spent closed in at home is meant to be a trust-building stage between Macdonald and her goshawk Mabel, so that eventually the two could hunt together, the goshawk released in nature and returning to Macdonald. Still, the darkness of the house, the time stretching. That is the section in H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s 2014 memoir about how she trained a goshawk after her father passed away, that I found most painful and hard to read. The two things enclosed in this darkness: a wild animal and a wounded animal and the way time can be endless. Even Schulz’s 3am pancakes feel a bit like that – this sweet moment is only a brief relief in the long narrative of losing and finding that she is living and writing. Against the longue durée of grief, even the most memorable of days and moments can feel slow. Nothing ever happens.
Has written the blurbs for both Blackburn and Schulz’s books. Macdonald, whose book feels like a precursor or an inspiration to both of these memoirs, would be these books’ first reader anyway: she’s been there, too. She knows how everything that comes after loss is changed by what happened (Blackburn’s interest in nuclear disasters and radiation feels like a metaphor for this knowledge). I used to see H is for Hawk at bookshops all the time and kept meaning to pick it up. I was drawn to the cover in shades of off-white with an amazing drawing of a brown hawk, its legs yellow, its eyes yellow, looking directly at you. Or perhaps it was the reputation of the book, which I knew had won numerous prizes for nonfiction, that made me want to read it even when I didn’t know exactly what it was about. Every time I saw it, I thought, Oh, I’ve been meaning to read that. But apparently, I was just waiting for the right time.
The right time was when my dad was sick. I felt guilty for reading it then, as if I had lost all hope that he would live (I had, in fact), as if I were preparing for how it may feel (I had no idea). I didn’t know that I could be interested in goshawk training, or the history of falconry, but then I am interested in the possibility of sharing another human’s experience of the world. Where Blackburn’s endless knowledge and curiosity about the history of nuclear disasters can be abstracted into a metaphor – for life and death, for beauty (there is a gorgeous section in which he describes the people of Chernobyl watching the reactor go up in flames from the bridge by the river, how the colours of it were beautiful, like the Northern Lights [page 33]) – Macdonald’s practical falconry feels palpable, like a physical demand. Early in her book when she describes slowly climbing back (her verb, so good) into life after loss, she says she had this unseen need: ‘I was ravenous for material, for love, for anything to stop the loss’ (page 17).
‘Ravenous’ feels like a word choice inspired by falconry. Most would say ‘desperate’. I read Macdonald’s book and then proceeded to read Didion, Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death (1964), Barthes, then Schulz and Blackburn. I was thinking of these books as company. I wasn’t reading to feel less alone in my experience, I knew loss is universal. I write above about crossing a precipice of grief, but then most people have lived through the loss of someone very close to them, almost certainly will. Still, it made me feel unmoored, ravenous.
What can be described of it?
On the margin of page 65 of Lost & Found, I annotate ‘AHHHH’. Another reader may gloss over that paragraph, which is about how grief hits at unexpected moments, how one day Schulz was so struck by it when, sitting in a café in Manhattan, she overhears a man say ‘I wish my daughter would call me more often’. The phone is what arrested me, too. For weeks, I was mad at my dad for not texting me. I didn’t forget that he died. I just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t texting me about some football game, or a movie he’d seen or an idea he had. Another friend told me this too – she said she still had a number saved under ‘Dad’ in her phone, so why couldn’t she just call it. Later in the same page, Schulz writes how it felt like grief was ‘moving through’ her, ‘entirely wild’. I read: indescribable.
On page 71 in Blackburn’s book, I take more notes than the actual text on that page. The headline on that page is ‘wild’ and the text is a single line: ‘It is wild to be alive when your father is dead.’
In a way, I stole the structure of this review from Blackburn. His book is in the form of short fragments, or bursts, so clearly written largely on the notes app of a smartphone. It’s written from the bathtub and the bed, the train and the moments before Blackburn (who is a therapist) is waiting for a patient to walk into his office. That’s because it – it, that is the gaping hole, that is grief – is always there. A friend of mine says no one discusses how grief is simply so weird. It’s so present and can’t be contained and it keeps coming up in unexpected, uncontrollable moments. In Blackburn’s book, the hundreds of fragments skip between subjects (John Berger’s writing and Joni Mitchell’s music and the news and again Alexander McQueen), his relationship with his partner and the tube line he takes, his relationship with his mother and how explosive being back in one’s childhood home is and each one is titled with a word or a few words lifted from the text itself. It’s ‘boeuf bourginon’ or ‘rope’, ‘years ago’ or ‘the world’ or ‘Ah!’ (which is the last page). These titles become echoes, a map, a way of navigating (by which I mean a way to keep going). Because they come from the text itself, in a way, they are simply a repetition (remember Garner disapproves of repetitions in his review of Barthes) but the focal point they offer, the humour and sense of direction, are crucial; they move the narrative.
I steal the structure because I think it allows me to write this personal narrative and call it a review. I want to tell, too, how meaningful it feels to be so close to a book that you wonder if the author might spill your coffee that you’re holding in your bed months after the book was published. That this is what reading can be: that it is useful, valuable and unique for a book to come so close to experience. I write about repetition, about trying to describe, about personal histories, and I think about a quote that has accompanied me for a long time: in an interview with BOMB Magazine, when the interviewer dares to ask Tim Parks the most direct question, ‘Why do you read?’, Parks answers, ‘For the intensity of engagement with someone else’s view of life.’
On August 1, 1978, Barthes writes in the Mourning Diary, ‘Which is what literature is: that I cannot read without pain, without choking on truth, everything Proust writes in his letters about sickness, courage, the death of his mother, his suffering, etc.’
I was ravenous for someone to describe what I couldn’t. Something wild. By wild I mean a goshawk and grief itself and an adjective for that weirdness my friend described. Wild feels out of bounds. Like my grief and my lack of words for it that led me to try and find myself in books. When I did, it felt like proximity and understanding and sorrow and some joy and being so impressed with other people’s words, with their view of life that can – or at least can try – tell about the world. Also, it hurt. Like choking on truth.