'A work of sheer brilliance, beauty and bravery' Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less
'Masterly... Her essays have a clarity and prescience that imply a sort of distant, retrospective view, like postcards sent from the near future' New York Times
We stare at our phones. We keep multiple tabs open. Our chats and conversations are full of the phrase "Did you see?" The feeling that we're living in the worst of times seems to be intensifying, alongside a desire to know precisely how bad things have gotten.
Poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert's The Unreality of Memory consists of a series of lyrical and deeply researched meditations on what our culture of catastrophe has done to public discourse and our own inner lives. In these tender and prophetic essays, she focuses in on our daily preoccupation and favorite pasttime: desperate distraction from disaster by way of a desperate obsession with the disastrous.
Moving from public trauma to personal tragedy, from the Titanic and Chernobyl to illness and loss, The Unreality of Memory alternately rips away the facade of our fascination with destruction and gently identifies itself with the age of rubbernecking. A balm, not a burr, Gabbert's essays are a hauntingly perceptive analysis of the anxiety intrinsic in our new, digital ways of being, and also a means of reconciling ourselves to this new world.
'One of those joyful books that send you to your notebook every page or so, desperate not to lose either the thought the author has deftly placed in your mind or the title of a work she has now compelled you to read.' Paris Review
In this deeply contemplative but accessible essay collection, poet Gabbert (The Word Pretty) considers how accurately people perceive themselves and the world around them. She begins, in "Magnificent Desolation," by considering the spectacle of catastrophe, using the uneasy fascination people have with events such as 9/11 and the sinking of the Titanic to suggest that "horror and awe are not incompatible; they are intertwined." In "Vanity Project," Gabbert reflects on how people perceive their mirror images: are such images "real," or are they "mirror delusions" in which one only sees what one expects to see? In her most involved and layered essay, "Witches and Whiplash," she delves deep into the history of psychogenic (mentally originating) and psychosomatic (both body and mind) disorders. In a fitting epilogue, Gabbert discusses French philosopher Henri Bergson, who "believed that memory and perception were the same" and famously debated Einstein on the nature of time, leading Gabbert to wonder whether lived experience is distorted not by unreliable memory but by an unreliable perception of the present. Whatever the chosen topic, Gabbert's essays manage to be by turns poetic, philosophical, and exhaustively researched. This is a superb collection.