Monday, September 16, 2013

Jill Christman on Jo Ann Beard

5 Reasons I Can’t Stop Reading & Teaching
Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter"

1) This is an essay that never gets old.  If you read it seventeen years ago, in 1996 when “The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker, or later when it was reprinted at the center of Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth (Little, Brown, & Co, 1998), read it again.  Then proceed to step two and don’t blame me for any spoilers.

2) The beginning: In graduate school I had the privilege of studying narrative structure with the novelist John Keeble who argued that the first page of anything should contain the concerns of the entire work. Tapping the board with a piece of chalk, Keeble explained that a writer working hard at her job would tighten that first page so a reader could touch it anywhere and the meaning would resonate across the fiction like sound across the taut skin of a drum. “Look at the first scene in ‘The Fourth State of Matter,’” I instruct my students. “All the way to the break. Knowing what you know now, how can you see that this opening scene contains the concerns of the whole essay?” From the first word, the essayist has the opportunity to teach us how to read the essay she has placed in our hands: how does Beard make the most of that opportunity?

“The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up.” As readers, we are prodded into motion in at least three ways:there’s the difficult rowing through the “complicated dream,” and the call to action—“Wake up”—from the insistent dog, as well as the invitation to wade into metaphor. Here we go.

As first-time readers, we can’t fully know from these three leading sentences that we’ve entered an essayistic world bound by one unifying, central metaphor (plasma, the fourth state of matter) and five meticulously threaded concerns—a dying collie with a Maserati muzzle, an attic of marauding squirrels, a wayward husband, an editorial gig with a best friend in a physics lab, and a horrific mass shooting—but even in those first thirty-three words, we’re touching the ancient dog, difficult dreams from which we might not wake, the idea of a shoreline and the hard to reach space beyond it, and the love between a woman and her dog. Even in these preliminary gestures, we have the sense of all there is to lose as we travel into the essay with our just-waking narrator.

Likewise, moving sentence-by-sentence to the first scene break, we discover that it’s all here somewhere in three opening paragraphs disguised as a simple scene in which the narrator takes her geriatric, weak-bladdered dog out into the yard for a nighttime pee—the betraying husband who used to love the collie (and the narrator); the sense of direction and mapping (echoed later in the scrupulous recreation of the shooting); the restless squirrels and the expanding universe; the Milky Way’s smearing light and the erased chalkboard we’ll encounter later in the physics lab with her friend, Chris; the not yet fully comprehended news that the lives of her space-physicist companions are already ticking down; and the time-posted routine of woman and dog, bonded and bound, in the dying game. It’s all there, and it’s a great lesson in beginnings.

3) The middle: As a writer of nonfiction, I try to heed Nabokov’s charge to make meaning of this crazy world through the identification of patterns and connections. In Speak, Memory Nabokov sidesteps time and chooses to "follow the thematic design, of pattern and order, through [his] life”: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” Here, Beard weaves five seemingly disparate, but finally inextricable concerns—and we do not trip. We walk with her.

Here is an exercise I do with my students: breaking them into five groups, I assign each group one of the concerns above—dog, squirrels, husband, friend in physics, or shooting—and charge each group with the task of a) tracing their element through the essay (in large and small ways), b) connecting their element to the binding metaphor of plasma, and c) arguing why their thread is the most vital and urgent strand in thinking about what the essay is really about. (Hint: the shooting will not always win. Every group has a chance here.)

What the students discover is that Beard refuses to privilege one species of trauma or loss over another, and in this refusal invites us into a space of deep grief where we consider our own losses and plasmatic stillness; in other words, through the conscious patterning of images, concerns, and closely observed scenes, Beard opens up a place for the reader to have an experience. Obviously, the 1991 University of Iowa physics lab shooting—which older readers will remember—is the biggest event in this essay, and yet, Beard doesn't let it take over. The collie matters. The squirrels matter. The wandering husband and her friendships matter. Love and loss matter.

4) The beginning, middle, and end—in that order. What really interests me in “The Fourth State of Matter” are not the subjects of Beard’s narrative, but the way her mind works: the way she sees and the way she filters what she sees through her interesting brain. Life doesn’t come with plot, nor do we get credit for our lives, and I propose that much of this essay’s success lies in the way Beard controls time and pacing as she transforms life into art.

I get that as real people we cannot reasonably (and sanely) partition our daily lives into clean strips—e.g., today you're helping a terminally ill friend, so you don't have to feed the dog or finish that article or call your mother—and although our narrated selves often require just that kind of thematic division, the remarkable thing to me here is that I feel as if I’ve entered the folds of Beard's brain, working with her as she tries to locate patterns in the chaos, to find a place to rest between marriage and divorce, liquid and solid, love and loss, life and death. Whether she's a grieving woman prone on her couch, stretching out her “dog arm” to nudge the collie out for a pee, or the dispassionate reporter piecing together the grim details of the shooting, Beard’s journey with the animals and the people she loves always, always feels urgent and necessary. In this way, “The Fourth State of Matter” does what Virginia Woolf says a good essay must: “draw its curtain round us. . .”—“a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”

5) The end: "In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we're in a pocket of silence. We're in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the Earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of silence, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.” Chris is gone, the husband is gone, the squirrels are gone, and the collie—her "peer," her "colleague"—will be leaving soon. Jo Ann is hanging motionless in all this, and as a reader, I hold my breath (I really do, every time) and listen.


Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction in 2001 and was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in Fall 2011. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Harpur Palate, Iron Horse Literary Review, Literary Mama, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.


  1. Jill, your analysis of the essay will now become part of anytime I might have opportunity to teach this fabulous essay. Thank you!

  2. So true! What a great response to a great work of art. I just listed Beard's essay as one of my own top ten essays of all time. And what I said, much less eloquently, was that it would be a great essay without the big newsy Event that first stuns readers.Beard's brokenhearted awareness that suffuses the whole thing leads to it, a heroic making of meaning.

  3. I also teach this essay--I usually focus on voice and tense--but I love the idea of breaking the class into five groups. I'm looking forward to trying it next time.

    The end of this piece reminds me of the end of James Joyce's "The Dead." Both are haunting with their sense of quiet and possession of new knowledge. And both pieces are so rich. I never get tired of reading them because they seem to grow with me, evolving as I get older and read new things and return to them with a new or more nuanced awareness of life's losses.

  4. I read this essay and its amazing.Thanks for your great review on it.

  5. This is a lovely piece for study and my 1st time reading it. What makes it representative of the essay genre?

  6. Never get tired of this essay! I've read it a dozen times at least, and aloud thrice; Once each to two friends and once to record it. (Don't like that recording; Will try again.)

    As I’ve commented elsewhere there are two edits of the essay which I’ve come to refer to simply as the “earlier” and “later” edits. “Earlier” = the June 24/July 1, 1996 double issue of The New Yorker, and The Best American Essays 1997; "Later” = Ms. Beard’s 1999 collection The Boys of My Youth and in the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. (FWIW neither edit is demonstrably better, though Gang Lu first appears much sooner in the earlier edit.)