This Month In Books: The Book Is an Escape Tool

Book tunnel in Prague library. Mirrors are used to create this effect.(vladj55/iStock/Getty)

Dear Reader,

“I had to write this book. I think any writer that finishes a book would say the same thing: they didn’t have a choice,” says Mark Haber to Adam Morgan in an interview about his slim novella Reinhardt’s Garden. Steph Cha, in her interview with Victoria Namkung, likewise talks about a compulsion to write, though not regarding her latest novel, Your House Will Pay, but rather her prolific output of Yelp reviews:

First and foremost, it is just a compulsion. I actually have a lot of these stupid compulsions. It’s like a completeness thing. I basically started writing Yelp reviews in 2009, and because of the way Yelp works, I feel like I have to do it until I die. I think now it probably doesn’t help with the book writing, but I do think writing Yelp reviews helped me figure out my voice in a way that blogging helps people figure out their voices because I’ve written millions of words on Yelp and I started around the same time as my first novel. It’s a low pressure, low stakes way for me to be writing almost every day.

In his review of Lafcadio Hearn’s newly reissued short story collection Japanese Ghost Stories, Colin Dickey writes about Hearn’s lifelong obsession with the supernatural, which began in childhood:

Alone at night in his bedroom he would become convinced ghosts were reaching out for him in the dark. He would scream ferociously until an adult would come to check on him, a disturbance that inevitably resulted in being whipped. But, as Hearn would later recall, “the fear of ghosts was greater than the fear of whippings — because I could see the ghosts.”

This obsession dictated the course of his writing career. As Dickey tells it, Hearn’s ghost stories are of a piece with his journalism in the U.S. and Martinique before his late-life move to Japan — “stories of murder and mayhem” and “interviews with undertakers and butchers.”  Taken as a whole, his full body of work is “a corpus around that thin line between life and death.”


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The compulsion to a narrative can be dangerous — it can twist the teller to conform to unexpected contours. In an interview with Jane Ratcliffe about her book This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hamon says that she was drawn powerfully toward religion from an early age:

It felt like there was a missing piece, not just in my spirit, but in my community. I was always drawn to the mystery, drawn to spirituality. I wish I had a better word for it. I was trying to hypnotize my friends when I was nine and was always talking about ghosts. I felt this thing within me that was different from other people and it sought community, it sought to be around like-minded people. It felt like this question mark, that was driving me toward an answer.

But in adult life, within her chosen spiritual home, she realized that something was still missing — something different but still vital. Her church’s sexism, it’s denial of the part of her that was female, left her fractured in a new way:

I began to see that also my voice was being used. I thought all of me was needed for this goal of bringing God’s kingdom to Earth. That’s the evangelical goal, right? That’s what we say broadly, in that community. But it was really that I was being used in slivers and slices, and I wasn’t unified in my being. I wasn’t able to bring my whole self to the table.

Dezen Hammon’s memoir becomes a means for her to reconstruct herself:

I started to put myself piece by piece back together with writing. I started writing again in earnest in my late thirties and realized that the person I had left behind at twenty-seven was someone worth reclaiming. So I’m in a new golden era, where my voice and my body and my spirit, there’s no compromise going on here. I’m not tamping down parts of myself that are inconvenient.

The kind of narrative power, to deconstruct or reconstruct the teller of the tale, is something Dickey touches on when discussing Hearn. Trying to pinpoint the specific quality of Hearn’s ghost stories that make them so ineffable, Dickey writes that

What gives Hearn’s yūrei their strange aura, their sense of discomfort is his own uncertainty about the stories he’s telling. In Hearn’s tales, the eerie landscape is the voice of the storyteller itself — it moves under its own power, guided by some unknown and unseen motivation.

Indulging in his lifelong obsession with the divide between life and death, Hearn the narrator reaches a sort of sublime state of powerless, adrift in realms of fear beyond the point of his understanding: the book as immersion therapy.

Speaking to Hope Reese about her new memoir In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado describes how the story she tells in her book, that of the domestic abuse she survived at the hands of her partner, also has a certain power over the teller inherent in it. During the abusive relationship, Machado’s potential ability to tell the story was itself an avenue of her partner’s abuse: she would instruct Machado not to write about certain incidents.

She was always afraid of my voice. That was the defining factor of our relationship — fear of what I would say and write and do. She’s afraid of exposure. Of the narrative that I possess.

By telling the story, Machado is breaking free of it: the book as an escape tool.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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