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Monday, October 4, 2010

On Kristen Nelson’s and Noah Saterstrom’s "Ghosty" (Drunken Boat, 2010)

The Fictions of Memory ( / Loss), "Getting It Right," and I-Forget-What-Else1

By Christian Peet

We pack the physical outline of the creature with all the ideas we already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him that we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.

--Proust, Swann's Way. Translator unknown; quoted in Donald S. Spence's Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (W.W. Norton, 1982).

A few weeks ago, the online magazine Drunken Boat published a collaboration between Kristen Nelson and Noah Saterstrom2, entitled "Ghosty." Noah's drawings accompany Kristen's spare but moving account of the death of the narrator's father, with whom she had a conflicted, troubled relationship. While the story suggests that her father's remains will likely end up as ashes, what "remains" for the narrator is a host of unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions, and an inability to articulate even the simplest of responses to a question about what sort of life he had lived--though, she says, "an unspoken answer fills up my mouth. It gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger."

Accompanying this passage is one of my favorite drawings in the series, depicting a ghost that has ballooned in size so that it not only fills the house it inhabits, but fills it to bursting. The sheathing is gone from the walls of the house, leaving only a gabled roof and the stick frame of two-by-fours.

I can't help but wonder if, regardless of the ghost's overwhelming size--or, perhaps, because of it--the ghost is invisible to the inhabitants of the house. Rather than standing in a doorway or at the foot of a bed, for example, as a "normal" ghost might, the ghost is so large as to contain the whole of the house's livable space. In a sense, the ghost has swallowed the inhabitants. In any case, to live inside the house means necessarily living inside the ghost. Or, to mix metaphors: rather than the proverbial "elephant in the room" (i.e., the thing that everyone is thinking about but no one will discuss), here the elephant is the room.

An old writing-workshop adage also comes to mind: "You have to have some distance from your subject in order to write about it”--a theory that is helpful in examining why, for instance, poems written in the throes of a high-school breakup don't quite translate in "great literature," that sort of thing. But the theory also recalls, for me, Maslow's "hierarchy of needs," inasmuch as it implies that one is not in the position of relative safety necessary to create art, to render a subject "artfully," when the subject is actively traumatizing the artist.

This theory of necessary authorial/artistic distance, however, also implies that, someday, the writer/artist will "look back" with some new clarity and perspective etc., which in turn implies that the event at which we "look back" is a fixed point in time--unlike us, whose lives have continued; we who remain, we who are present, we who are reading this; We, the Living, upon whom poet Robert Pinsky once bestowed the title, "the unfallen lords of life."

And yet, drawing on a bit of insider knowledge--not fair, I know--I can’t help but think: The narrator of “Ghosty” is not so unlike the author, whose own father passed away just months ago. I can’t help but think, Dang, Kristen. Good work. And I can’t help but think: Maybe an author doesn’t necessarily have to wait, doesn’t necessarily need distance.

The operative word being "necessarily," of course; we each have our own routes, processes, requirements for our art. Some write with a kid on their lap, others need a room of their own, etc. Some write at work, others wait until they are home. Some live in vans down by the river. Some, like myself, apparently, require years, while others, like Kristen, are able not only to live through this (to quote Hole), but are also able to create through this.

I think what appeals to me about creating work during acute pain is this thought: Do it now, even while you’re hurting, in case the pain just flat-out fucking kills you in the future.

Besides, the pain may go away but the literal and metaphorical scars will not. One way or another, we will always be reminded of this time, this loss, this pain. “This” is never going anywhere. “This” is our life. We live inside it. We can never have any “distance.” We’ll never “get it right.”

This essay, for example, uses a lot of italics and words in quotations, and doesn't always do it well, but, just for today--as they say in AA--I couldn't care less. Also, look at this picture:

What could be more wrong than that picture? And in the context of "Ghosty," the picture and the stuffed unicorn to which it refers, are simply heartbreaking. So much so, I wanted to laugh. I wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh to stave off all the terrible, terrible tears.

Moreover, even if we did "get it right," today, we’ll never remember it the same way. I’m acutely aware of this, as I’ve been reading a rather brutal amount of books and research on the topic of memory, particularly where memory intersects with “unpleasant” experiences, from the merely unappealing to the horrific and traumatic.3 Though the books focus on a variety of things in relation to memory, all of them, in one way or another, evidence the importance of “narrative” in “making meaning” of what we tend to think of as the “facts” of our lives: our memories. And though we like to think of our memories as static, like the events to which they refer, our memories are constructed anew every time we attempt to recall them. Thus, anything we write today will be different from what we write tomorrow about the same event.

So I ask myself today, after reading and thinking about “Ghosty”: Why not just write all along the way? And I respond: Good idea, Christian. You have nothing to lose and at least one thing to gain: your present construction of this memory. Your own narrative. Your own fiction. After all, we were discussing fiction, right? Or was it nonfiction? I forget. Good thing I wrote it down! Let me check. . . .

Maybe this confusion, this malleability, is why Noah literally drew frames around each of the the images in “Ghosty.” Rather than seeing visual representations of scenes or ideas discussed by the narrator, maybe we are seeing snapshots, portraits, family photos taken of those scenes. Or maybe the narrator is trying, against the odds, to place some sort of frame around these scenes, to create a snapshot-memory.

I don’t know if the narrator has succeeded in this attempt. But I know that Kristen and Noah have succeeded. The ghost may keep shifting, growing, changing over time, but “Ghosty” is now fixed, a series of snapshots in a larger album, snapshots that leave out whole persons, include only the elbow of another, but will be appreciated in the future for having "captured" dress and hairstyles as much as for having "captured" the intended subjects. The work itself, “Ghosty,” by virtue of existing, is now part of the larger narrative of the ghost. The ghost that is our life. Our life that is, somewhere in time, already someone else’s memory. Or so we hope, taking our snapshots along the way. . . .


1 Not really a review, since Christian does not write real reviews. TSky's Reviews Editor is on leave, however, and Christian has unfettered access to the reviews blog and can post reviews-that-are-not-really-reviews all he wants.

2 Full disclosure: Kristen and Noah are Christian's friends. See footnote #1 + Christian's not trying to sell you anything: "Ghosty" is free to anyone with an internet connection.

3 Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham, The Myth of Repressed Memory (St. Martins Press, 1996); Paul McHugh, Try to Remember: Psychiatry's Clash Over Meaning, Memory, and Mind (Dana Press, 2008); Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria (University of California Press); Donald Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (W. W. Norton, 1984)