The Worry Economy

Elisa Gabbert, The Unreality of Memory: & Other Essays

Atlantic Books, 272pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781838950620

reviewed by Jonathan Gharraie

Close to the beginning of this elegant, chewy collection of essays, Elisa Gabbert describes arriving at the Rice University campus on the morning of 9/11, and watching her fellow students watch the unfolding tragedy with ‘that air of disbelief that can seem almost casual.’ The casual note, whether absurd, funny, or melancholic, is important to Gabbert. She never allows it to dominate, but it’s a reliable way of leavening her rich textual mix of facts and scientific theories. The book is tidily split into three sections, the first two being of roughly equal weight, the third a jagged coda on the affective shock tactics of the Trump administration. Each essay is tagged by the year of its composition, but the book has a clear thematic arc that scuttles the temptation to match her investigations with memorable contemporary spectacles.

And at first, as if for the sake of establishing some proportion, she ponders familiar historical catastrophes, including the Hiroshima bomb and the Black Death. Disbelief is an obviously understandable reaction to destructive upheavals. The residents of Chernobyl feared the workers charged with destroying their crops and shooting their pets more than the ‘invisible threat’ of radiation. But Gabbert’s neither a scholar trying to nail down a narrow range of provable truths, nor a polemicist seeking to rattle our confidence. In her literary criticism, much of which was gathered together for her last book, The Word Pretty, Gabbert describes the effects of formally inventive works of fiction, like Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Javier Marías’s A Heart So White, that seem to have been designed to conjure slippery reading experiences. The ambitions of The Unreality of Memory are grander but not much less elusive. Starting out from some of our worst feelings, of powerlessness, of flickering despair, she works along a superstructure of practical erudition drawn from novels, monographs, magazine journalism and high-quality clickbait.

The variety of sources suggests that she wants to know what we’re supposed to do with all this information. Is it possible for us to live with our worst fears? We could dispel them, of course, looping the viral supercut of Jonathan Frakes telling us we’re wrong for 47 seconds. But Gabbert invites us to sit with our unease. Sometimes she skirts the possibility that knowing more leaves us just as bereft as we might be if we chose to splash around and revel in our ignorance: ‘We make stupid decisions because we think, having come this far (as a culture? As a species?), we’re indestructible.’ One essay opens with her on a business trip, sitting in a Seattle sushi restaurant and reading a New Yorker article about an earthquake that will probably devastate the Pacific Northwest region. Gabbert tells us she immediately searched to see if her flight home could be brought forward. Moments like that are reassuringly plausible, but they’re not often played for laughs. Toggling between long reads and flight schedules becomes just another habit formed within our plane of unreality.

The second half of the book investigates different ways in which we’re cheated of experience, from fictitious memories to the interior-without-walls of insomnia, and it’s here that her uncertainty about whether what she’s writing about is socially constructed or programmed by nature is uneasily resolved. Essays on fictitious memories and self-consciousness draw more upon science writing, to corroborate her experiences of being haunted. But culture wins out in the end, perhaps because the framework of historical enquiry allows for more decisive conclusions. ‘Witches and Whiplash’ is a boldly recombinant survey of the persecution of women that billows out into a speculative sketch of collective emotion and the physical manifestations of trauma, finally, and persuasively, landing on the ordeal of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh.

Gabbert recalls an accusation of coldness once levelled against her poetry and avers that ‘thinking is reducible to feeling.’ And the four years over which this book has been written have been filled with unhappy thoughts. She’s open about the extent to which her preoccupations nestle within the emotional horizons of contemporary liberalism, which she presents less as an ideological configuration, and more as a spirit of idealism that we allow ourselves to indulge in, a little at a time, as a treat. Except now, of course, hopefulness of any kind is wasteful. ‘Lately, when I luck into an excellent bag of cherries or an especially luscious peach, I think, automatically: I don’t deserve this. When people say they’re quitting social media because it doesn’t make them happy, I think, Wrong reason. I think, We don’t deserve to be happy.’

Do our social media feeds serve as a mechanism of cognitive self-flagellation? Gabbert mentions Indictment Day, when Robert Mueller issued his first charges as a part of the much trailed and ultimately anti-climactic investigation into Trump’s campaign. I’d completely forgotten about this, and Gabbert describes the event as ‘like being at a party when you’re not in the mood.’ That feeling, at least, I do remember, but I imagine I’ll be empty faced when someone jokes about Four Seasons Landscape Gardening a year from now.

The hope that these public narratives might deliver a satisfying dramatic payoff is certainly punitive, but I understand the tug of that feeling. Who doesn’t want to never hear from any of those people again? Who, seriously, thinks that we won’t? But part of the unease Gabbert describes is attributable to the growing disenchantment with narratives of American exceptionalism. Between 9/11 and the Trump administration, this process has framed her adult life. Even ten years ago, it would have been hard to find too many works of literary non-fiction that acknowledged the ‘slow violence’ wrought on the developing world by military intervention and industrial pollution.

And some of it bespeaks the thinner margins for personal error we have post-2008. The downside of being extremely online is that it belies the extent to which we’re more committed than ever to our social roles. We’ll cling to our jobs. We’ll do whatever it takes to pay our rent or get healthcare, because the alternatives aren’t just knackering. Gabbert describes her marketing day job as being less harrowing than that of a hospice nurse she knows. Hard to quibble with that. But then she also writes with a moving blend of candour and discretion about her husband’s chronic illness. ‘“Stress” doesn’t quite capture this era in our marriage: we felt terror and despair.’

Penned in by unforgiving responsibilities, the thinking, feeling person might be consumed by care, but there are hints throughout this book of what might relieve that. Earlier, she admits ‘one way to conserve our worry . . . is to offload it onto others – experts who presumably know better than we do the appropriate level of fear, and when to apply it,’ and the book is saturated with an almost desperate respect for expertise. One errant symptom of this might be the immense and deliberative skill with which the book has been written.

Still, there’s room for goofiness. She’s good on the ‘randomness’ of her library’s returns shelf, which she likens to the ‘anti-curation’ of Oulipo. And she finds tweeting itself a helpful way of keeping a diary. When mentioning her ‘warm feelings’ towards anaesthesiologists online, she receives some dissenting replies from women, one of whom describes her anaesthesiologist whipping out a copy of Architectural Digest and asking her architect husband what he thought about a lamp. Nevertheless, it’s the shape of the book that proves more revealing than any single essay, most of which conclude on dangling, sceptical notes. Collapsing her accounts of public catastrophes into the realm of private exhaustion doesn’t reduce the significance of the former. It suggests we’ve been tired for a really long time.
Jonathan Gharraie is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has published with n+1 online and The Paris Review Daily. He lives in South Derbyshire, where he's working on his first novel.