Relationships

Idols of Immortality

After my best friend’s death, I became convinced that literature didn’t matter—until Mary Gaitskill restored my faith in it.

Illustration: A barefoot man sits in a chair looking at an overturned book in the light of a floor lamp.
Doris Liou

In the early morning of Sept. 24, 2015, my friend Nick Louvel was driving north on Route 114 between East Hampton and Wainscott, New York, when deer appeared in the road, causing him to swerve and crash into a tree. This accident was witnessed by a taxi driver, stopped on the other side of the deer, who called 911, and a medical helicopter was dispatched and took Nick, who had suffered blunt-force trauma to his head, neck, and torso, to Stony Brook University Hospital, where doctors attempted to revive him. They were unable to, however, and he died, though I wouldn’t know until about eight hours later, when I received a succession of calls, the last of which was from Nick’s sister Diane.

In the months that followed fiction stopped working for me. I don’t mean to say I expected a novel to be a Xanax or my salvation. But I did of course, and I suspect anyone who has spent a good deal of their life reading and writing does. E.M. Cioran said he quit philosophy when it couldn’t cure his insomnia. I always took this to be a put-on, but here I was in my own version of that circumstance. I don’t just mean that fiction couldn’t take my mind off things. It was more total than that. Nearly every work of literature I picked up then struck me as misbegotten, a waste of human energy.

I should say that due to my privilege and luck, I had, at the age of 34, no even distant precedent for this experience. What I had to go on were the accounts of friends and the literature of grief, and I was indeed overtaken in the weeks that followed by the jagged waves of terror and grief and stretches of boredom that literature promises. I could barely eat or sleep. The simple onset of night felt like drowning. When I did sleep, I was visited by lurid and spectacular dreams that seemed to blow in from some other world. Many of these were lucid dreams, the environments of which played on the nerves of my whole body. I felt the sand of the beaches of my dream on my real-life feet, and the wind on my real-life arms. These dreams were often terrifying, but I woke up from them feeling briny with gratitude, and those weeks, I hope it’s not perverse to say, were also among the most joyful of my life. After not sleeping at all, I would walk up and down First Avenue, feverishly recording things I’d seen, notes like “pigeon by manhole” and “light shining on orange hardhat.” On the streets of New York the trances of strangers’ lives were written on their faces. I felt like I was everyone’s mother, and that everyone was mine.

“Spiritual” always struck me as a justly mocked word, but it is one that describes these feelings. It was as if each instant were a photograph, in an infinite cosmic flipbook, of a fated moment long passed. Days after Nick’s death, I was sitting on a stoop. A tired mother, dragging a stroller, emerged from a building with her young son, a toddler who, set a little free, was exploring the steps. Her face was heavy, but her torso shifted in rhythm with the toddler’s clambering. Her body was in the habit of caring for her son, and the habit was a kind of medium of safety, and the boy played within it. There was no difference between them and me. When I smiled at the boy, the boy smiled back grandly. “Children are naturally drawn to kindness,” the mother said. In no time at all, the three of us would be dead. What would remain of this moment on the stoop?

I don’t know how well I am conveying what is likely ineffable. But given these feelings, you might understand that I was put off when friends, in attempts to console me, described Nick’s death as “senseless.” Wasn’t everything, in a secular view of the world, senseless? If so, what made this event remarkably so? As far as I could tell, what people were saying was that Nick’s death made no sense because he was no longer here, or because he had not lived to be 102 with a brood of great-grandchildren and a glittering career. But how could a secular view take as a given that nothing lasted or that the universe was chaotic and then feel betrayed—for if it was wounded betrayal I heard in that word “senseless” more than anything else—that nothing lasted and the universe was chaotic and without inherent meaning? The claim was self-defeating by design: Humans had dreamed up a thing called “permanence,” a word with no actual referent, and then gnashed their teeth and wept and accused the universe of being “senseless” because it didn’t abide by this wishful conceit. Did people believe mortal life was, at its core, regrettable? That death was an embarrassment? And did the fact of mortality make our existence fundamentally lonesome?

All this I bring up to explain my newfound resistance to fiction, which was largely premised on a belief in a bedrock alienation the work exists to span. In a very moving essay on Lit Hub, the writer Adam Haslett articulates this view, arguing that the purpose of art is “to bridge the divide of our intractable separateness by using our experience to create something that can be shared in common.” But a crucial inversion of this relationship felt true to me in those weeks: that we were all connected; the illusion was our separateness. Why, I wondered at the time, spend so much time reading or writing fiction, if the feeling of connection it labored to create was actually, in a much deeper way, all around us? I also wondered: Was an immersion in literary language really the best way to return to the recognition of connection, if that language was rooted in a tradition that believes in our intractable separateness?

During that period, the answer I arrived at was no. Philip Roth has called literature a “secular faith,” and I suppose I was losing mine. But a faith in an actual religion, in Buddhism, was taking root. At the time Nick died, I had been meditating for some time, reading about Buddhist history and practice, and his death strengthened my trust in the practice. Meditation, I felt, was very slowly teaching me to sink into the deepest registers of experience, no matter how ugly or frightening, into a sort of psychic commons. Yet I did not manage to become Buddhist then, and still haven’t. I eat meat, I lie. I did not radically alter my life—not yet. But these shortcomings, I believed, were mine, not the practice’s. And at that time I began to wonder if the pleasure I had always taken from reading and writing fiction—the stretching out into imaginative breadth, the wading into a fecund solitude, the feeling into the lives of others—was merely a gateway drug to the deeper sustenance of spiritual contemplation. And the more I meditated, the less interested in fiction I became.

GIF: In a rendition of the author's dream, the author and his deceased friend walk through a foggy wood as disembodied eyes peer at them through the darkness.
Doris Liou

Such was my thinking when in early November 2015, a little over a month after Nick’s death, I drove from New York to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Ostensibly I was there to work on my second novel, but mainly I meditated and read about Buddhism and drove every week to a Theravadan monastery in the town of Temple, 12 miles from MacDowell. I cared more about being a friend to the people I met than about anything I wrote. I was still prey to giant, hungry emotions. One night I had a lucid dream in which Nick and I were walking in the woods around MacDowell. The leaves crackled and sizzled under our feet. We’d been friends, best friends, for 13 years! I said, “So you’re not dead!” He frowned warmly: “Well, no, unfortunately, I am … but it’s OK.” When I looked in the other residents’ eyes, I saw people who were alive, who were dying.

At MacDowell I was trying to find a book that would make me believe in literary prose. Early in that first month I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, but it did nothing for me. Perhaps this is just a matter of approach, of the mode of grief one relates to, but it struck me as a book written by someone who had defined herself by taste and style, two currencies very suddenly devalued in the wake of her loss, and yet with no other recourse available to her, she still clung to them. “This is my attempt to make sense of the period … weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness … about the shallowness of sanity.” The book remained true to this stated purpose, reading less like a courageous plumbing of a loss than the stunned enactment of a defense mechanism. Throughout, the famous badges of Didion’s style—the mastery of medical vocabulary, the recitation of chic proper nouns—came to seem brittle, indeed; each reference to Xigris or Brentwood Park or tissue anoxia failed to obscure—and yet left no room to know—the trembling soul grieving behind them, unseen even to herself.

As I read the memoir, I was reminded of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, which is premised on the idea that every “poet begins (however ‘unconsciously’) by rebelling more strongly against the fear of death than all other men and women do.” Beneath Didion’s ostensibly unflinching style, I detected this animating fear. At that time, I felt this fear in many literary works: Each exuded a nervous, grabby air, not dissimilar to the kind that hovers above a literary party in New York City. The conclusion struck me, at the time, with the strength of farce: Fiction was largely created by people who were especially terrified of death and at the greatest pains to deny it. Their books were but the fruit of this denial, and therefore these writers were among the very last people one should consult in moments of loss or for any fair accounting of reality.

Such was my crude response to Didion then, and it strikes me now as insensitive at the very least. What in the world did I know about losing a husband of 40 years and almost losing a daughter in the same year (only to lose her a year and a half later)? Looking back, I can see that my animus was largely driven by projection: From a very young age, I was terrified of death, and the works of people named Woolf, Shakespeare, and Joyce, preserved on my parents’ bookshelf, beckoned like a cheat code. The fulfillment I always took in playing with language was premised, I think, on this dream, that the result would be somehow permanent. And yet this recognition does not change my opinion of the book. Rereading it recently, I still felt as though I were watching denial fail, but refuse to accept its failure, and to see it cited as a standard of courage strikes me as a category error.

I would like to contrast Didion’s memoir with a passage I read soon after it, in a self-published volume with a psychedelic cover that the Buddhist monastery in Temple, New Hampshire gave out for free. The book is called Still, Flowing Water, and the passage is a transcription of something the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah recorded for a student’s dying mother:

You’ve been alive for a long time now, haven’t you? Your eyes have had the chance to see all kinds of shapes, colors, and lights. The same with your other senses. Your ears have heard lots of sounds, all kinds of sounds—but they were no big deal. You’ve tasted really delicious foods—but they were no big deal. The beautiful things you’ve seen: They were no big deal. The ugly things you’ve seen: They were no big deal. The alluring things you’ve heard were no big deal. The ugly and offensive things you’ve heard were no big deal.

Both Haslett’s theory of art-making (that it is made to bridge our intractable separateness) and Bloom’s (that it is meant to countermand our mortality) assume the act exists to repair a state of being that is naturally insufficient. But what moves me about this rather unremarkable passage is the felt truth of its surrender, the way all experiences, good, bad, ugly, beautiful, are called to be accepted and released. Implied in that repetition of “no big deal” is the understanding that everything is OK just as it is. We need not resist.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller,” famously argued that the teller of tales derives her authority from proximity to, a kind of friendliness with, death. By that standard, Chah had authority and Didion had none. What’s more, Didion’s style of survival, her writing of literary fiction, seemed the very thing that ill-prepared her for mortal loss. And her book confirmed my caricature of the literary writer as someone who pretends to confront all of life while being terrified of its universal ending.

Soon after reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I was walking through the MacDowell library, a beautiful stone cottage stocked with books by former fellows. I paged through a few books and then picked up Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica. Years before, I had read and enjoyed Bad Behavior, and friends had long recommended Veronica. I began the novel that day in the library and finished it two days later in my studio. I may be describing nothing more than the serendipity of finding the right book at the right time, but here, I thought, was a writer who knew she would die and knew that her readers would, too; who did not write to deny death but to share what felt important in the face of it. It was one of the most profound reading experiences of my life.

Gaitskill is frequently misunderstood, even by excellent critics. There is a received view of her as a bad-ass punk rocker, a dismissive and cold appraiser of the sordid human condition. In a brilliant and widely circulated article published on the personal essay last year, the writer Merve Emre praised Gaitskill’s work as a way forward for the form, and yet did so while arguing that Gaitskill joins a Didionian tradition of prose “served cold.” But, as the writer Leslie Jamison has argued, Gaitskill is only cold by reputation: In truth, she admits emotions of all kinds, the wilds of grief as much as any.

Indeed, in “Lost Cat,” an essay in Gaitskill’s recent collection Somebody with a Little Hammer, the author importantly critiques Didion’s term of choice, “magical thinking.” Gaitskill is writing about her ostensibly embarrassing willingness to perform irrational rituals, such as consulting psychics (one of whom tells her a lost marble is responsible for the disappearance of her pet) and if necessary rolling around shit, to retrieve her vanished rescue, Gattano:

I did not consider this pathetic susceptibility “magical thinking.” … My connective symbols—the marble, the things various psychics told me—were similar to religious statues and icons that people pray to, or parade through the street with, or wear around the necks. Except that the statues and icons are also artful creations, sometimes beautiful ones. My symbols were not beautiful; they were stupid and trite. They were related to the symbols of religion as a deformed and retarded child might be the distant cousin of a beautiful prince. But they were related nonetheless.

Here we see some of the harsh diction that helps give Gaitskill her rep. The desperate practices to which she might succumb are a “pathetic susceptibility,” and the debased New Age rituals are “stupid and trite,” like a “deformed and retarded child.” This is ugly language, intentionally so. But Gaitskill doesn’t leave it there. This deformed and retarded child is made, in the analogy’s last turn, a distant cousin of a beautiful prince, a relation to nobility.

The passage is, I believe, a crucial distillation of Gaitskill’s moral ambition as a writer and calls to mind an image of Pope Francis that went viral a few years ago. It was a photograph of the pontiff embracing Vinicio Riva, a man with boils all over his face and skin. In the photo Riva rests his head in the pope’s lap, while the pope prays over him with his eyes tightly closed. The vein above Pope Francis’ right eye is protruding, and his face is cinched tight. But tight with what? Concentration? A cynic might say that Francis is, in the exaggerated style of a stage magician, performing focus. Or that in the notorious and inverted pride of so-called Christian humility, he has used the man as a prop to parade his own holiness. Cynics will say a lot of things, but the image went viral because it offers a plausible depiction of what I suspect is a universal human longing: to embrace the entirety of ourselves and the world despite all in both we find shamefully hideous.

The task of loving that which repels us is only trite when such a process is made to seem easy. In reports of their meeting, the pope is said to have sought out Riva, hugging the stranger without hesitation. If that’s the case, perhaps Francis’ face is merely a record of his fervor. But I see something else in the pope’s expression: a shudder of animal fear, a stiffening in the presence of the disfigured. And yet Francis cradles the stranger anyway. In my reading, the pope’s aversion is not entirely overcome but it is entirely allowed, and even loved. Perhaps I should say the discomfort is both somehow allowed and contained, or allowed because it is contained: The fear is permitted within the capacity of his embrace.

I detect a similar enactment of allowance and containment in the passage from “Lost Cat.” In the above excerpt, Gaitskill admits her own self-disgust at having succumbed to gross superstition (believing a lost marble is responsible for her cat’s disappearance) while also stating that this act joins, however distantly, with the sacred. Her embrace of the distasteful in herself isn’t as lusty as the pope’s embrace of Riva, but it is real and made generous expressly by the inclusion of words like “stupid,” “trite,” “deformed,” and “retarded”: To deny her aversion at her own behavior would be to overstate the ease with which she can accept the deformed in herself, and thus to reduce the very feat of the acceptance. Such, I believe, is Gaitskill’s signal achievement as a writer: She never does us the disservice of underestimating our ugliness, our shame at our ugliness, or our capacity to contain both. This capacious quality feels generous. And in “Lost Cat,” as in so much of her work, Gaitskill documents that which shatters us out of an intuition, I suspect, that even in such debased states we remain worthy of an attention so fine as to be indistinguishable from love.

Perhaps it is merely the residue of association—of having read Gaitskill alongside Buddhists—but I think of her as a spiritual writer. Parul Sehgal has written of the way Gaitskill delves into the life unseen, of a deeper place accessed through violent sex or infirmity, or, in the case of her novel The Mare, an intimate connection with children. That deeper place strikes me as spiritual in character, an ultimate reality. Here is one such description of that place, a moment of sexual transcendence in Gaitskill’s short story “The Agonized Face”: “It was like entering an electrical current, passing first into a landscape of animate light, and then into pitching darkness, warm with invisible light, the whispering voices, the dissolving, re-forming faces of ghosts and the excited unborn. Everything horrible to us, everything nice to us.” Maggie Nelson has called this passage an example of blurring and expansion. I would also call it mystical.

There is a risk in such an approach, a way in which this mechanism—the returning to instance of revealed weakness, pain, or ugliness to enter into a deeper space—might flatten into the merely masochistic or self-absorbed. Gaitskill herself wonders in “Lost Cat” whether she is “asking too much or even looking too closely at the workings of the heart.” In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson argues that Gaitskill’s early stories overplay cruelty at the expense of what’s true, and I agree this is sometimes the case, especially in Gaitskill’s early work. At times she seems so dazzled by the points of entry, by the bracing jolt of the cruel line, that she does not make it through to the deeper thing; a kind of numbness results. But in the best of Gaitskill’s work—in “Secretary,” Don’t Cry, Veronica, and the essays collected in Somebody with a Little Hammer—her plunge into the extremities of experience does not strike me as excessive so much as curious, brave, and thorough.

Here is a famous story about Ajahn Chah. Some Western students asked him to explain the Buddhist concept of impermanence. He pointed to a glass on the table and said, “You see that glass? One day it will shatter. But for me the glass is already broken.” This may sound morbid to some, but only if brokenness is itself intolerable or somehow shameful. Chah was, by all accounts, a loving and joyful man.

Here is Gaitskill in Somebody with a Little Hammer:

To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life, and art based on the empowering message and positive image is just such a refusal.

Emre, in her essay, cites this passage as one about our inevitable “confrontation with meaninglessness.” But I don’t perceive meaninglessness here. I detect communion along, of course, with heartbreak and suffering. What if thanks-giving was made a priority expressly by the heartbreaking impermanence of all things, and loss glittered with meaning? Veronica ends with the sentence, “I will be full of gratitude and joy.”

I was very moved by that last sentence when I read it at MacDowell. I believed that Alison, the novel’s protagonist, was full of gratitude, despite the suffering she had known, and I believed, too, that understanding death and feeling gratitude, even with full knowledge of life’s ugliness, were likely coincident. And the deepest works of art, I thought, would enable, however briefly, the achievement of such a hard-won feeling as gratitude in those who beheld them. We have Kenneth Burke’s famous formulation that poetry is “equipment for living,” but in the same breath we could say that poetry—fiction, too—is “equipment for dying,” that in a sane culture those two tasks are one and the same.

In those weeks after Nick’s death I planned to volunteer to sit with dying people. Such work at the time, as opposed to writing, seemed undoubtedly meaningful. But after reading Veronica, I began to understand that this new ambition was at least in part a metaphor: In my vision of hospice work, I was imagining a space in which our ephemerality is at last undeniable, one in which we are finally permitted our ugliness because it is written on our faces, a room in which we are allowed fully to live and die. Mary Gaitskill reminded me that art can provide such a space.