This Month in Books: ‘What Used To Be Me Before the World Buried It’

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Dear Reader,

Ottessa Moshfegh, in an interview with Hope Reese, says the through line between her first novel, Eileen, and her new one, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is isolation:

The book was challenging because of the essence of it being a woman in an apartment. You know, it’s like writing about someone being in jail, which is my first book…. I needed to write that book [My Year of Rest and Relaxation] to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone.

One of those difficult things, as the former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine writes in her new memoir To Throw Away Unopened, is how what’s “worse than… being alone forever is the thought that I’ll grow to love a person very much and won’t have them for very long. Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose.” Isolation can become self-perpetuating; it can be easy to convince yourself, once you are experiencing it, that it is inevitable.

Being forced to be alone is a form of torture, and (as I remember from the anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place, a book which I excerpted on Longreads a few years ago) it has always been recognized as such. In their 1833 report on the new practice of solitary confinement in U.S. “penitentiaries,” Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont wrote:

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills…. The unfortunates on whom this experiment was made fell into a state of depression so manifest that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger if they remained longer in this situation…

In a world in which a form of torture like solitary confinement exists and is so widespread, it can seem callous to talk about loneliness. But there are other kinds of forced loneliness, even if they don’t result in total solitude. A prison, for example, also causes loneliness on the outside. In his interview with Tori Telfer, Issac Bailey talks about how his beloved oldest brother’s incarceration scarred his childhood psyche. His brother’s absence was an open wound which still hasn’t healed:

I was a nine-year-old boy when this happened. I had nothing to do with it but have been punished, in a very real way, nonetheless. It’s one of the reasons I’m convinced I still speak with a stutter all these years later.

And there are other kinds of prisons. Your own body, for instance. In his memoir Inward Empire, Christian Donlan grapples with the effects of MS. He describes the quotidian robbing of his selfhood and the disconcerting isolation he experiences inside the vast emptiness of his failing synapses:

Day to day, I sometimes feel I am chasing a little pool of nothingness around inside me, the way I might tilt an air bubble up and down through a spirit level. Sometimes this nothingness seems to gather in the fingers, a lack of sensation that feels implausibly, paradoxically, raw. Sometimes it pools in the brain, a wordlessness, a theft of language…

In the face of this horror, Donlan jokes: “I have never really liked the fact that I have a brain,” a sentiment with which, incidentally, Moshfegh wholeheartedly agrees:

I am acutely aware of how much I do not like my own mind. When I’m not distracted by my imagination or by something external, time passing feels like I’m just waiting for the time to pass until I die.

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Luckily, there are a few voices in this month’s books newsletter who point out the upsides of being alone. In her book dedicated to the subject of solitude, Alone Time, travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom mentions writers and artists who have been both for and against the practice of eating alone. Nathaniel Hawthorne once called it “the dismallest part of my present experience,” whereas Fran Liebowitz said, “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.” Rosenbloom comes down heavily in favor of the practice, somehow managing to make being alone sound simple, pleasurable, and not at all terrifying: “When you’re not sitting across from someone,” she says, “you’re sitting across from the world.”

In her interview with Ryan Chapman, Chelsea Hodson says she finds it intriguing, rather than, say, disturbing, to be acutely aware of inhabiting a specific, lone self — because it gives her the ability to just make it up, to pick and choose her “self,” and to let a version of herself walk away from her:

There’s something about that difficulty — curating the “I,” deciding what to include, deciding what that eye “sees” — that’s really interesting to me. [The “I” in the book] feels very distant actually. It’s this weird thing that’s happened… Somehow, when it’s on my computer it’s still accessible to me. And now that I can’t touch it, it feels far away from me.

Of course, it’s the act of writing that gives her this ability to create a separate self — a revelation shared by Pearl Curran, who, in the early twentieth century, was possessed by the prolific and critically acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright — and, notably, ghost — Patience Worth. In Joy Lanzendorfer’s profile of Curran and Worth, she writes that:

When confined to writing from her own experiences and thoughts, Curran found herself bored by the “conscious effort of the ordinary manner of writing,” adding, “My own writing fatigues me, while the other (Patience Worth’s) exhilarates me. That’s a queer mess of a statement, but quite true.”

The “other” self doesn’t feel like a prison. The “other” is a treasure, a friend who keeps her company, maybe even the truer version of her. Lanzendorfer goes on to tell us that:

In [Curran’s] short story, “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante,” the character Mayme, like Curran, had a drab life until she discovered a beautiful spirit, who, for a time at least, brings her excitement, money, and a sense of purpose. Or, as Mayme says of Rosa: “Oh Gwen, I love her! She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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