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Book review of Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert

This prediction appears in “The Great Mortality,” one of 10 previously published pieces that appear alongside two new ones, plus an epilogue, in Gabbert’s second essay collection, “The Unreality of Memory.” Gabbert is not a scientist or a science journalist. She’s a writer with a day job in marketing and a parallel career as a poet and essayist. How did she so clearly see what was coming for us? One answer is that she has read and thought a lot about disaster and human perception, the themes that tie her essays together. Another is that she’s good at finding angles readers might not otherwise see. Like a restless photographer, she’ll stretch herself to find another and then another shot. She’ll zoom way in and way out.

The essay “Big and Slow” is an example of the latter. It gets at the terror of global warming not by telling “arresting stories” — a strategy recommended by a scholar Gabbert quotes — but by depicting the problem’s un-depictability. Climate change is so “massively distributed in time and space,” Gabbert writes, citing the philosopher Timothy Morton, that it “can’t be captured in a photograph or even an abstraction.” It is “happening everywhere all the time.” To perceive it at all, we have to artificially shrink it or pause it. Consider time-lapse GIFs of melting ice, whose “extreme compression only minimizes the impact of what’s happening at actual size.” Gabbert’s descriptions of the human failure to grasp climate change in all its dimensions end up being a far better aid to apprehending it.

They are not, however, likely to rouse anyone to action. “Big and Slow” is typical of Gabbert’s disaster essays in that its bent is deterministic. “Don’t be upset when a teacup breaks, because its breaking was inevitable,” she writes, invoking a Buddhist philosophy. “Is the world already broken?” If it’s not, “The Great Mortality” suggests, we might have other inexorable catastrophes to thank. “A pandemic, an asteroid, or a nuclear war could all lead to global cooling,” Gabbert observes. “When you look at it that way, it’s almost as though we are acting with a higher collective intelligence — a hive mind, employing folly as a strategy.”

Another essay offers a similar explanation of catastrophic technological failures like the Titanic and the Challenger. Such disasters, Gabbert fears, are the unavoidable outcome of collective progress. (She quotes the philosopher Paul Virilio: “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.”) Humanity, in these framings, becomes an object of detached awe and curiosity that resemble what you might feel during a nature documentary.

Despite her drone’s-eye perspective, Gabbert remains a human being concerned with human suffering. She often describes her horror at death and destruction, and her rage against what she sees as evil. But these moral instincts do not usually translate into well-defined moral positions. (After quoting her, I keep finding upon reflection that I need to delete “she argues” and replace it with something else.) Her essays are not argumentative or even narrative as much as they are accretive, example after example building on a given theme: nuclear disaster, the threat of tsunamis and earthquakes, the nature of pain, the difficulty of seeing oneself as one is. The technique effectively conveys each topic’s “sheer sheerness,” to borrow Gabbert’s gloss on skyscrapers’ sublimity. Like massive buildings, her subjects are hard to fit in a single frame; she circles them, finding all the vantages she can.

Gabbert’s title essay, for example, investigates the mind’s tendency to erase things that happened and invent things that didn’t. In her signature style, it layers reflections on her wavering recollection of her grandmother’s house; the loss of auditory or visual memories that sometimes accompanies the loss of hearing or vision; the Mandela effect (false collective memories, such as some people’s conviction that Nelson Mandela died in prison); and many other lacunae of remembrance. She goes on to propose, in an essay about self-perception, that our experience of the present is similarly unreal: “What we experience as direct access to the actual physical world through our actual physical body is really just an extremely immersive user interface.” An essay about psychosomatic conditions comes at this idea from the opposite direction, emphasizing that perception and physical reality are often indistinguishable: “To skeptics, psychogenic pain is somehow less real than other pain. But all pain is in the mind.” If her essays on disaster express an agonized fatalism (suggesting that there’s little we can do about anything), her essays on perception drift toward a kind of existentialism (suggesting that whatever meaning life has is what each individual gives it).

Gabbert reckons in her final three essays with the gaps in these perspectives. Watching the horrors of Donald Trump’s presidency unfold, and reflecting on the fact that there is more evil in the world than she could ever bear witness to, she attempts to draw conclusions about people’s collective and individual moral responsibilities. As she acknowledges (“I am struggling to write about evil”), she never quite succeeds. In the end, the aesthetic tools she otherwise wields so brilliantly — that sky-high view, that inward-looking zoom — are not well-suited for showing us how we should live with one another. But then, literature is often better at showing us how we actually do.

The Unreality of Memory

FSG Originals. 258 pp. $16 paperback


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