“You can spot it by the way its surface quivers and shines, but usually you don’t notice until you step on it and it gives way beneath you.” So Shena McAuliffe describes quicksand early in her essay collection Gas, Light, Electricity. The description also serves to illuminate thematic and formal concerns at the heart of her collection, essays that pierce the ripe heart of loss and carefully examine how the stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them may prove as unstable as quicksand.
The long first essay, “Endnotes to a Seizure,” traces the dissolution of the narrator’s relationship through her partner’s affair and meditations on seizures and illness, occasioned by the relationship’s end and a hiking trip with friends. The narrative moves forward and back in time, starting with the revelation of the affair, the narrator waiting for the you of the beloved to return home to their shared apartment. The essay then shifts by two months to “Escalante Canyon, in Southern Utah, where the river made the best trail, running between red rock walls and sky,” where the narrator explores the landscape of her new state and begins to reflect on her loss. On the drive back to Salt Lake, the narrator and her friends encounter of a man having a seizure in a fast food restaurant. This encounter awakens the narrator’s sympathy, but also her careful attention to language and how it shapes the world. The word seizure is taken up in its multiple meanings, (to seize as in the act of having a seizure but also to have something taken from you) and explored in its many metaphorical possibilities.
At times, the connection between the memoir and the seizure sections feels tenuous, an act, perhaps, of narrative evasion, but this is deliberate. These sections, full of research about seizures and other kinds of illness, like the early diagnosis of female hysteria, are a way for the narrator and the reader to find respite from the terrible knowledge of betrayal, to mimic the gaps in knowing that the narrator experiences, while weaving a rich tapestry of understanding. These sections demonstrate how the narrator’s unquenchable thirst for knowing and for language, for finding alternate ways of making sense of this betrayal, are not just part of the story, but the story itself. McAuliffe writes (italics in the original), “This is not the story I want (to write, to own, to inhabit)” (13). This assertion, early in the collection, reaffirms the narrator’s (and our) need to construct and reconstruct the stories of our lives and those around us. She continues to describe what the narrative should include to make it more effective as a story, such as more description of the landscape or the friendship among the three women hiking. The narrator then writes, “But not this rolling around of language and definition. The musing and sorting. These tumbled bits.”
McAuliffe knows, in this assertion, that the “tumbled bits” are at the heart of this essay and the collection, but also acknowledges the narrator’s and the reader’s desire for narrative certainty and simplicity. The narrator wants a way to say, this, this here, that is the story. But in the narrator’s questioning, in this essay and the others, McAuliffe shows that only in digression, that only through multiple paths, the play inherent in the meaning of words, can we really begin to understand this world.
The language of the collection is lyrical, finely attuned to image, but always in service of helping us see more closely, even in the exposure of images impossibilities of conveying idea. But the care in evoking the sensory world highlights the energy created in the gaps of language, meaning, and experience, such as in the description of Emory Blagdon, from “The Healing Machine,” as he searches for healing properties in the world around him: “He considered the sensitivity of a piece of pie, the crust separated from itself, the juices rising . . . . in everything a sensate buzz” (54). McAuliffe imbues each essay with a “sensate buzz” asking us to taste with the narrator the raspberry gleaned on a walk (“As a Bitch Paces Round Her Tender Whelps…”), understand the texture of a head scarred by a scalping (“This Human Skin”), and to visualize elements used to divine the future, as in the opening of “By Soot, By Flour, By Beetle Track”:
In stars. In flour. In clouds. In palms. In the bend of a myrtle branch. We squint to glimpse the future. We read and misread. We swallow the tea and study the leaves at the bottom of the cup. If the cheese coagulates just so the marriage will fall apart, but what difference does it make if there is nothing we can do to stop it? And if we foresee it, will we not make it so? (137)
Each of these lyrical moments spreads forth its roots, inviting the reader into the branching out, each image a possible trajectory. In this way, McAuliffe is akin to the early naturalists, cataloging and recording the world for us to see and examine carefully. Her delight in research, whether from the collection of facts to integrating footnotes, is carefully transmitted to the reader. Whether through information on types of poison, Marceline Jones and the story of Jonestown, artisanal wells and rust belt urban blight, or the history of neon and light, McAuliffe reminds us that what we know as fact is rarely objective or complete. In this way, her work exemplifies Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of rhizomatic structures which “shatter the linear unity of the word, even of language, only to posit a cyclic unity of the sentence, text, or knowledge.” Each essay demonstrates how our understanding of any subject is shaped by our relationship to it in time, space, and memory.
McAuliffe’s essays revel in the possibilities of multiple narrative threads and (re)imagining both present and past, but with (in this post-fact age) careful acknowledgement of what is imagined, what is to be questioned, and when the narrator is not to be trusted. In the source note at the end of “The Healing Machine,” McAuliffe writes, “I am an unreliable source, making various assumptions and projections, imagining scenes and conversations based on small factual details” (60). And in the final essay of the collection, “Of Gas, Light, and Electricity,” also in a footnote, she queries, “So how can I revise this (hi)story for accuracy?” (210). She invites us to embrace the uncertainty, the fragile state of the in-between, and in so doing find a space where, like “[i]n these fleeting minutes between night and day, everything is magical” (219).
Rachel Marston’s fiction and nonfiction have recently appeared in Seneca Review, the Ocean State Review, the Train Tracts project (a collaboration between writers, book artists, and people traveling by train around the U.S.), Sou'wester, and the Red Earth Review. She is an Associate Professor of English at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.