A Grief Archived
Darcie Wilder, literally show me a healthy person
Tyrant Books, 98pp, £10.75, ISBN 9780999218600
reviewed by Fintan Calpin
The answer for Lewis came in the form of curation. Compiled from the notebooks he kept after the loss of his wife, poet Joy Davidman, A Grief Observed sees Lewis shape disjointed reflections on personal loss into a broader narrative, one that can accommodate the non-linearity of grieving: poi si tornò all'eterna fontana. Many of the more heart-wrenching passages of the text lay bare Lewis's deep anxiety of expression, his almost incapacitating fear of misspeaking or misrepresenting. Torn between confession and composition, taking control of the shape of his deepest intimacies meant exposing them to view. To be a spectator of another's grief can be uncomfortable, but the non-specificity of the title hints reassuringly at a commonality of experience: perhaps Lewis's reflections on his grief might help a reader through theirs.
I can't help but wondering if the title of Darcie Wilder's novel, literally show me a healthy person, is an explicit twist on Lewis's. Turning that exact commonality on its head, Wilder's razor-sharp debut is a reminder that for the generations who grew up on Tumblr, the idea of writing as therapy is nothing controversial; in many cases it is uncomfortably familiar. Wilder specialises in discomfort, and this novel is an exhausting barrage of flash-fiction – biting one-liners, crushing self-deprecations and vertiginous dives into devastating episodes from Wilder's past. Like Lewis, Wilder weaves these fragments, quite miraculously, into a poignant and altogether disarming narrative of grief and consolation that never comes.
To qualify what I mean by exhausting, this book, a slim 97 pages and very generously spaced, took me weeks to read. I was addicted to Wilder's wit but could only take it in intermittent bursts. The writing skitters around at the speed of thought and moves lightly through its heavy content:
calling them 'catacombs' is just a fancy way to rationalize hoarding dead bodies
sorry i'm late it's just this girl called me fat in the sixth grade
i never thought id use my iud this little
Sequences like these echo the familiar dissonance of a Twitter feed, but in Wilder's novel this flighty cacophony traces the movements of a single, obsessive mind. The result is an intensity of voice that is hard to cling to.
Wilder takes as her starting point two difficulties that CS Lewis and other influential grief memoirists like Joan Didion and Julian Barnes wrestled with before her: confession is her dominant mode, and she shows little regard for the divide between fiction and life, or the appropriateness of fictionalising life. Rather, Wilder reframes the entire question of writing as therapy by making her narrative not a linear progression towards healing but a horizontal development between constellations of anecdotes, memories and admissions.
I make no attempt to summarise the narrative here, because its unveiling is, I think, at the core of this book's affect and a testimony to the subtlety of Wilder's art. The novel reveals its story of loss and neglect through patterned repetition, recalling certain key events again and again with significant omissions and additions. This treatment of narrative is reminiscent of Max Porter's highly regarded Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which hops between different forms and chronologies, suturing and reopening wounds with the sharp beak of the ambiguous Crow. It is unsurprising, perhaps, for two novels on the subject of grief to use such ambitious temporal structures: in grief, after all, nothing stays put.
This play between fabula and sjuzhet is reflective of Wilder's compositional technique. Speaking in a 2017 interview, Wilder compared writing the book to editing a film, with much of the text pre-existing and the focus becoming how to structure and sequence it. Wilder is as much a writer as an archivist, the curator of her own confessions. Towards the end of the book, she gives us a surprising confession: 'i don't know how else to archive this, but my wifi password is N7SJJHXQK4K342F3.' The act of archiving, itself a radical reimagining of the status of the author, is just as important as what is being archived. This self-curation is something we're all used to practising on social media, but Wilder splices it into a tradition of grief writing and shows how the two can speak meaningfully to each other. In both, sacrificing your deepest intimacies can be the cost for controlling their shape.
To focus on the novel's formal innovation and contribution to grief memoir risks underselling its brilliant humour. Wilder is a master of Twitter-style concision and wit, dextrously U-turning into a punchline in the space of a word: 'u can be over him and still want to ruin his life. multitudes.' Elsewhere, snippets of text and dialogue are dragged out of context, making us flies on the wall to awkward or hilarious announcements like 'not caring when people die is punk: only feasible in youth.' Much of the humour emerges precisely from the way Wilder relishes discomfort, using the exact same concision of style or re-contextualisation of content for painful, darkly funny divulgences: 'my borderline mother died: can't live with her, can't live without her.' This constant reinsertion in media res, where you never know whether to expect a punchline or a gut-punch, is precisely what makes it such a difficult but hugely affecting read.
Like many people, when I first came across Alt Lit, I felt excited and energised by its difference and immediacy. More recently, however, as the once-distinct Weird Twitter and Sad Twitter have become the dominant modes of expression on Twitter and meme culture has exploded across Instagram, I've begun to wonder about its purpose or longevity. I found I stopped reading it, preferring to just scroll through Twitter and Instagram for content that was funny, engaging and, in its own way, avant-garde. I began to feel that Alt Lit's promise to bring literature up to speed with contemporary modes of expression and communication rang hollow in what remained a niche interest. That it couldn't in fact keep pace with Twitter or Instagram. literally show me a healthy person has recaptured that energy, and proves just how much the cultural forms inflected by the internet still have to develop and to give.