Hybridity and Essay DNA
(or my answers to your question on the event of the second day of my qualifying exams)
It is five in the morning and I am awake. This is not an uncommon occurrence. I’m bigger now and so I sleep less soundly. But also, the baby likes to wake around 5 a.m. and move around a bit. I felt her this morning, needling my left side with what I assume was her right foot. She’s upside down by now. I know because when she hiccups I can feel her in my hips.
When I last wrote to you all, it was before I started feeling her, before what they call “the quickening”—a word I’ve always loved. I wrote then about going in for a screening to test the traces of her DNA that are floating alongside my DNA in my blood. I wrote about how just the fact of that test made me aware of my own hybridization, how I have become two in one. And I compared that doubling to the essay and the way it can be embedded in many forms, including poetry and fiction, sometimes without us ever realizing it.
I now realize I am hybrid. I don’t need a test. I have those kicks in the night. The roundness when I look down at my feet. The way my belly button is filling in, threatening to pop out. But mostly it’s the kicks. There is nothing like a movement that is not your own to confirm that you are no longer alone in a room, or in the world.
And so now you’ve asked me about the essay and how I recognize it, especially when it’s often still so small and growing within the body of another beast, something someone else has called a story, a novel, or a poem. It would be easy if I could just tell you that it kicks. And in some ways it does. Seeing the “I” on the page is always a hint that the essay might be there, but not an assurance. I’ve had palpitations in my leg at times before that feel somewhat like this baby moving inside me, but I know there is no baby there. It is not enough to just see the “I” on the page or even necessary to see it at all. What you need is the presence of an I—or its implied presence—an “I” that is thinking, thinking on the page, thinking in an invented timelessness that is the mind on the page, in an attempt to figure something out, and maybe failing.
I just listed six characteristics—you may or may not have noticed. I don’t think all six need to be present for us to feel the presence of essaying in another work. If they are all there, you’ve probably already felt the kicking anyway. But since you’ve also asked about hybridization, I think it might be helpful to consider moments where the contours of the essay are less clear, as well as some moments where an essay has just been born.
1. The “I”—or its implied presence
I’ve always liked the way Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin called the novel a work of competing voices. He invented the term heteroglossia specifically to describe the way in which the novel—for a long time the defining literary work of our era—was marked by its many voices: the narrators, the characters’, sometimes the author’s. At the time he contrasted that multi-voicedness with epic poetry, but I think it’s better compared with the essay, which many now say is the defining literary work of our era, and which requires the presence of an “I,” even if that I is only implied and never directly stated.
Of course, what do I mean by the “I”? Novels include the “I” all the time and they’re still novels, at least mostly. But what I mean is an “I” that is not competing with other voices. The “I” might be competing with its many-voiced selves, the many selves of one’s mind, but we are not witnessing the village of voices in the novel that Bakhtin meant when he thought up heteroglossia.
Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation is called a novel, but much of that sparse book reads very much like an essay, in large part because of the insularity of its narrative voice and the prominence, and isolation, of the “I.” Composed of short fragments—some quotes from philosophers, some facts about space travel, some that read like journal entries penned by an isolate new mother moored in a timelessness that is new parenthood—the book reads in many ways like an essay by Montaigne, who also liked to mix quotes from others with his own pedestrian thoughts on a subject he hoped to dissect.
“I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger,” Offill writes. “‘It’s for my daughter.’ I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.”
The biography of the first-person narrator in Dept. of Speculation overlaps in several ways with Offill’s autobiography: both are new mothers, trying to write a second book without much success, while living in New York. But that quality—what used to be called autofiction—isn’t what makes much of this book feel like an essay. What makes it read like an essay is the strength and solitariness of the “I.”
Even when partway through the book, Offill suddenly revokes the “I” and replaces it with third person, referring to “the wife” as a character, even then we feel the steady beating of the “I.” We realize that she is trying to make herself into a character, as if that might give her the distance she craves from her own life. But that distance is only invented. Every time we read “the wife” we can easily see behind it an “I,” lurking. And by the end of the book, Offill returns the “I” to its rightful place on the page.
Though it is also at the end that the book starts to feel somewhat like a novel again and less like an essay. There is resolution to the story being told and a sense of completion as we move toward closure: the marriage recovers, the narrator finds a sense of peace, order is restored. And instead of ending in an “I,” Offill ends with an “us.”
2. —who is thinking,
This is key. Because there are “I”s everywhere. In pop songs, in novels, on reality television, in that text message you just got. But in an essay, the “I” is thinking. Or as Mary Capello explains in her essay "Propositions; Provocations: Inventions,": “I write creative nonfiction because while many ask how I’m feeling, no one asks how I’m thinking."
Cappello says creative nonfiction, but I think she meant essays. Creative nonfiction doesn’t always require the presence of thought. There are beautiful pieces of reported journalism or memoir that likely required much thought to piece together, but that don’t including that thinking as it is actively thought, by the narrator, who is also an “I.”
But what do I mean by thinking? I mean something that is not feeling. Not that feelings don’t enter the essay. They do. But when they do, it is often so that they can be thought out or about by the narrator. Think of T Fleishmann’s Syzygy, Beauty, in which the author tries to think out desire and its opposite, rejection. Or think of Eula Biss in On Immunity as she tries to rationalize her own fears about contamination that arise soon after she gives birth to her son. Or Hilton Als in White Girls as he understand his competing desire for and anger at the figure of the white woman in America. In all of these books there is an “I” thinking and we as readers witness their thoughts.
An essay, Philip Lopate writes, “tracks down a person’s thoughts as he or she tries to work out some mental knot, however various its strands.”
Scott Russell Sanders in his essay “The Singular First Person” adds: “In this era of prepackaged thought, the essay is the closest thing we have, on paper, to a record of the individual mind at work and play. It is an amateur’s raid in a world of specialists. Feeling overwhelmed by data, random information, the flotsam and jetsam of mass culture, we relish the spectacle of a single consciousness making sense of a part of the chaos."
3. thinking on the page,
Now we’re getting somewhere. And by somewhere, of course, I mean the page. Thinking on the page is different than just thinking. I am thinking now, but on the page I’ve only written this sentence, and so you, my readers, have no idea what I’m actually thinking, or if I’m even thinking at all. What I’m thinking, though, is about how to parse the difference between thinking and thinking on the page, between the static “I” and the “I” who thinks.
I think what I mean is that to think on the page is a different sort of act than to just think. There is a leap of faith required on the part of the reader and an act of creative invention on the part of the writer. The essayist must simulate what it feels like to think and make that feeling felt.
How we do that is another question. In his anthologies on the essay, John D’Agata often includes works that are fragmentary. And it’s true that our thoughts are often fragmented. They are also often associational.
I had a student one semester who was mostly silent up until we read Lacy Johnson’s memoir The Other Side. “This is amazing,” he said, during our first week into the book. “It’s just like the way my mind works.” Johnson’s book is composed of hundreds of small segments of prose that move back and forth in time and seem to cohere mostly by way of association, though there is a narrative arc and some chronology.
Little Labors is a book by Rivka Galchen that was supposed to be a work of criticism about Japanese literature in translation—specifically The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu—but ended up being a book-length essay built around fragmented thoughts about Galchen’s new baby, among other things. If Galchen had written the book she was supposed to write, that book never would have been a literary essay because, more likely than not, the critical thoughts she had about The Pillow Book and The Tale of the Genji would have appeared on the page fully formed, organized, and argumentative. Whereas what Galchen gives us in Little Labors includes a list of her baby’s habits, musings about Godzilla and Frankenstein as metaphors for baby-making, notes on authors and their parental or non-parental status, and the conclusion that all reactions to a baby are really more indicative of the hopes and fears of the reactor than they are of any intrinsic characteristic of the baby. Galchen leaps from one subject to the next with almost no connector except, of course, the baby, which always seems to be on her mind, at least on the version of her mind we find on the page.
4. thinking in an invented timelessness that is the mind on the page,
In his Believer essay on the “expositionary novelist,” Ben Marcus makes a distinction between time in traditional fiction—which he calls invented time—and in nonfiction, which he characterizes as timeless. These hybrid novelists, he argues, are “working primarily without or around time, producing fiction that might appear more essayistic, discursive, inert, philosophical, and, well, literally timeless.”
Of course, what Marcus fails to notice is that a sense of timelessness on the page is also an invented form of time. It’s an invented form of time, in fact, that mimics the mind on the page.
In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes what is essentially an essay about becoming a mother and no longer writing in her diary. The book is also very much about time and, though it moves in a more or less chronological manner from before Manguso had a child to afterwards, the writing itself occurs in a state of invented timelessness. That timelessness is marked by sudden chronological leaps and by a constant sense of revision, in which one thought is expressed only to be contradicted or overridden by a subsequent though. For example:
Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.In this series of mini-observations, what we feel as readers is that we are inside someone’s head as they think through an experience. We have just watched Manguso consider memories as they exist and change in time and yet the state in which she considers these thoughts is a timeless one.
One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake. The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it—an incapacitating sweetness.
The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.
The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that.
5. in an attempt to figure something out,
We all know the most famous characteristic of the essay: as an attempt. Montaigne called his collections essais, which in French means “attempts” or “tries,” and at some point English-speaking essayists latched on to the quaint simplessness of that idea. Unlike novelists, we are not trying to build a world where one did not exist before. Unlike poets we are not trying to build a new language. We are just trying something out, or trying to figure something out.
For instance, I’m eating Korean sushi at ten in the morning and I’m trying to figure out if that’s because I’m pregnant or because I’m pinned to this desk writing these exams or because someone got the sushi for me to be nice and, when someone is nice to me, I feel obligated to accept their gifts, even if they’re not exactly what I wanted at the moment. Though this sushi is good and, if I were so inclined, I could probably write an essay about it, or about the regularity of meals and the jouissance of breaking out of that routine.
The fact that essays are preoccupied with attempts means that they tend to be, by nature, much more focused, more quotidian, more ordinary, even, than either novels or poems. But this is not to say that they’re boring. In fact, one of the tricks of an essay is to take the smallest, most pedestrian aspects of life and, by filtering them through the questioning self, suddenly make it intriguing and new—bigger and flashier, somehow, than they were before.
For instance, The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker is called a book of poems, but it reads very much like an essay, especially in the moments in which we see our narrator observing and questioning herself and the world around her:
It was hard to say goodbye to the ocean. It was not the same ocean as it had been the day before. Today the waves crashed against her, pushing her back toward the shore. At the same time the tide was going out and tried to pull her with it. It was hard work just standing her ground. She wanted to say, ‘I love you.’ She wanted to say, ‘Thank you.’ But to whom? To which part? The part of the ocean that was trying to push her away or the part that wanted to swallow her?In this essayistic moment, Zucker is simply trying to think through her feelings about the ocean, but when this scene is read within the context of the whole work, we can’t help but also see the ocean as a metaphor. Because throughout the rest in the book, Zucker keeps trying to understand what it means to be a mother and a writer, but also a mother and writer with no plans to have more children—and yet with the desire to have them, to keep having them. Her book, then, is itself a contemplation of the pedestrian aspects of life—like motherhood, like standing in the ocean—and how they correlate to the larger questions about life and death and meaning. In a poem near the end of the book, Zucker asks:
—how can any mother write an epic when—myMy response is that maybe you don’t write an epic. You write an essay.
fear receding behind his small-voiced apology (a
little nodule in my right breast) safe—when I'm
so terribly interruptible
6. and maybe failing
At the end of her book of essays, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes:
Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end. It’s easy to do, and I’ve done it again and again, sometimes with a betrayal of the complexity of what came before, and sometimes when I haven’t done it, an editor has asked for the gift wrap and the ribbon. What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?What she’s asking, it seems to me (though of course you can disagree) is why we can’t accept that essays by definition fail—to conclude, at least. Stories are supposed to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Poems are known for that last line or lines, in which everything turns and paints the world anew. But essays are about process and process is not the same as product, which is to say conclusion.
Solnit’s book is fascinatingly hybrid in that it mixes literary analysis with the retelling of myth with an attempt to understand the life and slow death from Alzheimer’s of Solnit’s mother. And then running like a counter narrative to all this is a ticker tape along the bottom edge of the book with another narrative about sadness that both complements and distracts from the main one Solnit is trying to tell. Even the chapters of the book refuse to move toward some sort of pat ending. The chapter titles are a series of words that eventually mirror each other, with a “Knot” chapter in the center: Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound, Knot, Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots. And so, even in this, there is the sense of circularity, of ongoingness, rather than of ending, even when we get to the ending.
Which is a failure of sorts, though now that I’ve written all this, I’m apt to revise my thoughts. Perhaps an essay is not about failure, but about incompleteness, like this baby kicking inside me. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in all its verbosity, can be the most arresting in those moments when the last sentence of a chapter just breaks off, as if in mid-thought
Sarah Viren is a writer and translator living in West Texas. Her essays and essay-like beasts have appeared in the Iowa Review, Guernica, TriQuarterly, The Normal School, Diagram, and others. More at sarahviren.wordpress.com.