The best writers make me feel both more and less alone. Without flinching, they’ll pinpoint the limits of human connection and consumption, the folly of pinning your happiness on a single person or product. This tough love is extremely frightening and ultimately liberating. No romance or promotion will save a person from intermittent loneliness. Only by tolerating that fact can you eke out a new template for existing.
I finished Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in the dimly lit hours of a recent sleepless night. It hit me hard, a collage of blue hallucinations glued together. The setting is New York City before and after September 11. The 24 hour news cycle has really started to gyrate. Dead bodies are bedrocks of the spectacle. Black teenagers get executed by police who get forgiven. White teenagers slaughter innocent school kids. War criminals contort their lips convincingly for the cameras.
The unnamed narrator visits family members and friends. They are all either dying or depressed. Everyone deadens their sense of detachment and dread with entertainment and medication. The narrator changes prescriptions, leaves the TV on all day, can’t sleep without the background pitter-patter of news and midnight advertising. Motivational slogans burn behind eyelids. Dreams keep getting ambushed by celebrities. The constant stream of images pacifies her anxiety.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely depicts the way grief becomes unseen, numbed by the public spectacles that distract us from our private pains. A bereft mother wakes up drenched with sweat, side effects of Zoloft, and watches Saddam Hussein get captured live on national television.
‘Is she dead? Is he dead?’ asks the narrator. ‘Yes, they are dead. One observes… One opens the paper. One turns on the television. Nothing changes. My distress grows into nothing.’
I read a lot of books that depict the genius ability of human beings to prevent themselves from feeling emotion, and what happens when these defense mechanisms either succeed or begin springing leaks.
I’ve been captivated by a string of recent Australian releases. Down The Hume by Peter Polites is a vivid portrait of south-western Sydney. The narrator’s malaise is both ancient and totally modern, numbed by stolen painkillers and dopamine administered via smart phone.
Things That Helped by Jessica Friedmann is a collection of essays about postpartum depression that doesn’t offer neat, cliché answers. The writing is both humane and undaunted by the disclosure of deep pain.
Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down is a convincing fictional depiction of grief and the way that it can quietly colonise a person’s life. The scenes are absorbing and immaculately understated.
The Town by Shaun Prescott deserves all the recent superlatives. It distills the unique, offbeat solitude of being an outsider in the regional townships of Australia, and the subtle loneliness of the insiders. Having lived in various incarnations of The Town—some bigger and some smaller —I suffered from déjà vu at least once a page.
I also keep a pile of books on my bedside table that are BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY writers for nights when I’m fatigued by words and need a reminder of why I’ve invested so much trust in them.
The books range greatly in size and scope and style, but many share more than a strand of American paranoia. Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Christine Schutt’s A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jean Baudrillard’s America.
At least once a month, sometimes sooner, I’ll open Underworld on a particularly sleepless night and read a Nick Shay or Klara Sax chapter, sequences that haven’t lost their effect since I first laid eyes on them.
The most recent addition to my greatest hits pile is Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. I picked it up last year and put it down soon after, not in the right headspace to concentrate on something so bracing, perhaps a little intimidated by the elegance and intensity of the prose.
Earlier this year, I finished all the essays in one sitting. My patience was rewarded with the peculiar combination of thirst and vertigo that hits after pitting yourself completely against a brilliant work of art.
There is never any closure by going back to these books again. I seek relief from the sentences themselves. I’m searching for the flickering recognition of a mutual feeling, or exposure to an unfamiliar experience. I want to provoke emotions that we deny ourselves in daily life.
I keep thinking about a scene towards the end of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The narrator visits her grandmother in a nursing home. ‘Sad is one of those words that has given up it’s life for our country,’ she says, ‘it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by the culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change the channel.’
The diversions and abstractions finally lose their effect.
‘It meant me,’ she says. ‘I felt sad.’
So have I, though not all the time, probably less now I recognise the necessity of sadness—real sadness, keen and unconcealed. I try to let the emotion sit with me when it rises from either literature or reality. I’ve quit reproaching myself for generally reading the bleakest books. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about my inability to grin persistently when confronted by real life suffering. There are some things that you need to feel bad about. Otherwise they’ll patiently fray at your brain and body.
Lech Blaine is a writer from regional Queensland. His writing has been published by The Griffith Review and The Lifted Brow. In 2017, he was a co-winner of the Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Black Inc. will release his first book Car Crash: A Memoir in 2018.
You can read more work at his website: www.lechblaine.com