CLOSING THE BOOK: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature
$20 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: CLOSING THE BOOK: TRAVELS IN LIFE, LOSS, AND LITERATURE explores the intersection of literature and life in personal essays about traveling, teaching, reading, writing, living, and dying. Each essay's narrative arc is formed and informed by the act of reading literature that makes a reader feel like the book she's reading was somehow written specifically for her to read in that exact moment. Renstrom relies on science fiction as a catalyst for grief, as well as a means of pushing past grim realities to begin envisioning life reconstructed and to embrace the idea that "there's nothing wrong with rebuilding forever."
My Review: Joelle Renstrom, like most of us in adulthood, has lost loved ones to death. Her father died of cancer at the disturbingly young age of sixty-three (given that I'm within hailing distance of that landmark and possessed of siblings well beyond it, this perturbs my emotional orbit), her world then darkens bit by bit as more and more adult griefs mark her passage through time.
Passing through time and space is a long-term interest of Renstrom's. Her blog, Could This Happen?, is dedicated to the topic of science intersecting with science fiction. Her ruminations on the near-miraculous reach of modern technology with the humdrum existence of thee and me are well worth your eyeblinks and earhairs. As one would expect of an MFA recipient, her ruminations are fueled by reading widely and voraciously. The methodology of her processing the pain of losing her dad is also, and unsurprisingly, based on the books she has read. The processing begins with an unsurprising lens: White Noise.
A Sense of Homecoming (Don DeLillo—White Noise) rather unsurprisingly deals with an academic and his wife who fear, with irrational intensity, death. The idea of it, the fact of it, the sheer unknowable scope of death causes Jack and Babette to run from the void and directly into the unknown scientific ameliorations of death's traumas pre-mortem. Or, in other words, into the void of the unknown but outlined by the comprehensible present:
Before Dad got sick, visiting Kalamazoo and the icons of my childhood was gratifying and indulgent—it stoked my appreciation for the people and places that shaped me. Now it feels as though I've gone back to my childhood home only to find it full of crumbling plaster and frayed wires; yet my only option is to stay there, trapped between desperate nostalgia and the rapidly darkening future.As Peter Weller famously said in "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai," "after all, no matter where you go, there you are." We bring with us all the associations of happier or sadder times to every physical place we inhabit no matter how temporarily. When we're at our least profound passages we're still moving towards death and consuming the life we've got in making sure death is held at bay:
The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating trying to right the squeaky wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbones sinking, chests caving.It is a place brimful of life's supports, lit like a hospital delivery room, and there is no place on earth less life-affirming to be. Renstrom makes her shopping choices, not her usual ones, and in her change of life's habits in this stark shining anteroom to the inevitable dark grave, comes to terms with the scope of her problem: Jack and Babette's terror of the end.
Making Luck (Kurt Vonnegut—Sirens of Titan) starts young Joelle's early adulthood with a double-barreled shock: As she unpacks her boxes in a tiny Manhattan space, there is an indescribable noise as planes hit the Twin Towers. From her roof, Joelle watches a shaky rump of consensus collapse in fire and dust and death; coming back into her room, her beloved cat has, in panic, vanished from the premises. Her new job evaporates. Her friends are as shocked as she is, offer nothing real, satisfying, even logical to the hurting grieving lass? Her bookcase offers help, how shocking, as The Sirens of Titan with its chrono-synclastic infundibulum fitting together antithetical truths, its seemingly persecuted Malachi Constant batted willy-nilly about the Solar System at the malign will of Winston Niles Rumfoord as he surfs the infundibulum's Universe-spanning spirals after escaping a Martian-ruled Earth pacified by the Rumfoordian invention, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Intervention, explanation, causation arrive from (unsurprisingly, to those familiar with Vonnegut) Tralfamadore in the form of a missing but minor bit of Tralfamadorian technology called the UWTB: the Universal Will To Become.
As I skimmed through, Vonnegut seemed to pat my knee and tell me nothing was my fault. Like Malachi Constant, my present circumstance was created by a series of accidents, dice rolls, short straws. Bad luck. Initially, I found the idea comforting—what was [a friend]'s flippant psychobabble next too the infinite wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut?Remembering Malachi Constant in the time before Joelle finds her cat and her post-9/11 footing after the attacks recalls her deep questioning of the comforts of pain's trivialization by the tempting path of predestination. Her father's stage IV cancer is part of the plan. We make our own destiny, it's part of the cosmic plan, it's illusory freedom within an iron cage of karma.
If luck is the force that moves the world, not everything is about me, or you, or anyone—perhaps not much is. As I stood, my hand pressed to the book as though it were a Bible, I realized that accepting my luck, or the sheer arbitrariness of my situation, was tantamount to admitting that there was nothing I could do, now or ever. While there's a certain comfort in powerlessness and in the idea that all we can do is keep going, I found it problematically passive.
Perhaps it's reductive, but I can't shake the notion that someone's behind the curtain. Luck, even if random, is a force with energy and movement. It has to come from somewhere—every force has a genesis. Is luck born like a thunderclap when certain conditions exist? What or who is luck? Karma raises the same question—if karma is a reaction, who or what is reacting? Who or what determines the poetic justice that will extend over multiple lifetimes? Karma is a system, which suggests that it needs to be managed. Luck seems to be a system, too, though I can't discern what rules or ruler governs it. If luck operates on a scale or system, why can't the outcomes be programmed or predicted?All the questions everyone who went to college with a philosophy major, or a theology student, spent at least one smoky night discussing. But after 9/11 the issues became more urgent for us all again, and for the author the possession of a well-stocked bookshelf offered up the perfect companion on another midnight ramble down the Path of Least Resistance on our way to the Treadmill of Futility. Vonnegut, in his wise indifference, allowed Joelle to take the control she could of the things she could reach and affect. A lesson that her later self would need to have buried deep in her mental foundations as she comes to terms with her beloved dad's unfair, unearned, undeserved, yet inevitable death.
Letters to Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing and The Martian Chronicles) is the author, a teacher and a daughter and a writer, struggling to get up each morning, step on the annihilating landmine of reality, and spend her day, her life, reassembling the atomized bits into a self.
[My dad and I] were supposed to go to Sweden together—we'd talked about the trip for ages. Now, I had in my bag a glass jar filled with his ashes. The last day of my trip I would spread them over Hedemora, where my grandfather's grandparents had lived. I got up every morning and had to figure out how I would say goodbye that day. Each footfall was a goodbye. Every blink, every yawn, every drop of rain.This experience of loss is the experience of mindfulness. Every action, performed mindfully, is a connection to all that is and all that was and all that ever will be. Eternity is the experience of now. It's easy to dismiss this insight as facile or puerile. It's harder to find someone who, once the now has fully entered them, snorts or curls a lip at the reality of its immense power to change us.
The Progress of Souls (Walt Whitman—Leaves of Grass Song of Myself #81) takes Joelle on her tireless tour of Scandinavia, allowing us to bridge her grieving self and her healing self in anecdotes personal yet curiously universal, like the post-death sex that most of us have, that animal coupling devoid of connection or commitment that simply affirms the continued vitality of the animal; then the more healing sex of a compatriot, a being whose existence is real to us before, during, and after the encounter.
Whitman's the perfect book-companion for this part of the journey of healing. His verse was very like intimacy, its lines like the smell of your lover's ears or the feel of his ball-sack in your palm. Joelle's men aren't men, they're theraputic appliances, and there's no reason for that to be a bad thing. She needs healing, they need whatever brings them to her side, and both parties are ready, willing, and able to perform their appointed parts in the acts to come. (You should forgive.)
Fighting the Sunday Blues with Albert Camus (Albert Camus—The Stranger) pulls Joelle into her chosen role as teacher, where her students serve as surrogate selves in her search for the edges of her grief. What better way to explore the idea of grieving than to go into Camus' absurd rejection of meaning in The Stranger. Meaning can't be ascribed to any of Meursault's actions, he says so himself, and Camus clearly agrees with him:
Despite their feelings of discomfort regarding Meursault I suggest to my students that because Meursault remains true to himself and to his belefs, and because he thwarts society's attempt to impose its values onto him, he's a hero—at least, in Camus' eyes. This makes the class squirm. They ask how a murderer can be a hero. It's a question so reasonable that it seems almost rhetorical. But more importantly, it's an opening; the best teaching moments come from flipping the obvious, subverting the expected.So how can grief have meaning? How can the author's Sunday blues have meaning? There's no meaning to find because it isn't there.
Strong meat for a teen. Stronger perhaps for the cicerone charged with explaining the system to the perspectiveless adolescents who, sadly, are often trapped by the idea of meaninglessness and its corollary, the eternal unchanging now, and take a final solution to a problem that's really just a matter of faulty perspective: Why worry about meaning? Life isn't the question, as in "why are we alive?" Life is the answer, as in "In a Universe of absurd, improbable things, how can we not be alive?"
How I Spent My Free Will (Kazuo Ishiguro—Never Let Me Go) explores the adolescent class under Joelle's tutelage responding to the purpose-driven life, the existence filled to the brim with meaning and predestination.
It's chilling and horrible, though, isn't it, the existence these beings are born into, that's designed for them, that's inevitable from cradle to grave? (And, not coincidentally given the last essay in Renstrom's book, this novel won the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award.) Can anyone who has read this book ever look at a purpose-driven life with the same blithe certainty that it's a good thing? I certainly didn't; I don't think Joelle or her kids did, either. A corrective to the absolute freedom of Camus? Merely identifying the poles between which the metaphysical gravity flows?
Absence of hope takes many shapes. It's not the quiet and muted scarcity of something wonderful and luxurious, like chocolates or soft sheets. The absence of hope is the absence of something utterly essential. The absence of hope crumples your chest like cellophane. How ugly the world becomes when the clouds hang hopeless, how suffocating and stagnant. Nothing will ever move or change again. The clouds sag lower and lower until they bind you up like a beetle in a spider's web, unable even to contemplate the possibility of escape. You walk through days as though you're in a CGI movie; some grey shadow has filled your soul, digitally grafted over your image so that you look and feel sooty, dirty, damaged.Purpose, then, excises free will? Free will obviates purpose? Surely the truth is in the middle!
Isn't it. Isn't it?
Finding Fathers (Barack Obama—Dreams from My Father) takes us with Joelle as the amazing, beautiful moment of Barack Obama's election to the presidency hits the whole country like the sledgehammer that it truly represented. Shattering the ancient white privilege...though not the more ancient male privilege...that dominated US politics was the moment when she looked up at the sky and asked her dead father, "Are you seeing this?"
Never before a believer in an afterlife, by her own report, she reached into immensity and sought a return touch from the source of her life and her hope for purpose. I think it's the act that makes the result.
Closing the Book (Gabriel García Márquez—Love in a Time of Cholera) was the author's somewhat odd choice of reading material for the days of her father's final bouts of chemotherapy. After his death, the book remained on each night table she had for four years. Finishing the book would, I suppose, feel like finishing her journey through grief. Anyone who has been through a profound grieving can tell you that the grief itself becomes a way to feel the beloved's presence. It's as necessary to us, the bereft, as the beloved was in life.
Four years after his death, living in Boston, teaching her teenagers about the landscape of literature and the how the emotional map is not the country, Joelle picks up this deeply fraught read and finishes it. She does so in the unearthly beauty of Mount Auburn Cemetery. But at last she brings into her heart and mind the beautiful and sad tale of time's best, cruelest trick: passing, passing, passing:
Now, as the act of reading Love in a Time of Cholera catalyzes...memories, I feel as though I'm remembering a horrible movie I once saw. Maybe I'm preventing myself from fully accessing those moments, making sure I stay outside them. I have flashes of rememberinghow very real those moments are. Yet a few minutes later I read over the words curiously, thinking, oh yeah, that's right—that happened. Even though I lived it, I still cannot fathom this happening. All I know is that I wouldn't go through it again for anything.And yet, in the inevitable course of life lived with love, you will. And you will be glad that you did.
The Stars Are Not For Man (Arthur Clarke—Childhood's End) draws on the author's stint teaching a course at her father's university, where he taught for decades, called "The Evolution of Science Fiction." As with all truly well-thought-out courses of action, this one had unanticipated side effects: an intergenerational friendship that blooms in the garden of Joelle's gym. Her friend is an older man whose scientific interests have led him down paths fictional and metaphysical, and the discussions the two of them have are deep, profound, moving; they include the unknowable nature of dark matter and the inscrutable nature of cancer and the sixty-four-year-old miracle that is Childhood's End. Arthur C. Clarke, whose resume includes many fine works of fiction and much wonderful scientific origination...his practical research and analysis made satellite communication possible...wrote of the Overlords and their unasked-for gift of evolution to Humankind in terms that echo the journey Joelle and her friend are on:
"How little we really know about ourselves," [my friend] said. "Regardless of my boundless lack of understanding, I have faith in the way things work. I have faith that they do work," he said. ... "After all, what's the likelihood of you and me becoming friends?" he asked.What's the likelihood of anything at all existing? What's the likelihood of there having been an imbalance of matter and antimatter in the vanishingly tiny fractions of time following whatever it was that banged in the Big Bang, resulting in the minuscule variations in radiation levels (aka heat) that we've seen and named "the cosmic microwave background" and that underpins the very existence of the universe we so impatiently, demandingly prod and poke and shout, "WHY?!" at with our every breath.
"There lay the Overmind, whatever it might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba...Now it had drawn into its being everything the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment."
And so a daughter lays to rest her father's being inside a structure so vast there is no superlative for it: Herself.