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Saturday, April 29, 2006

This book will save your life

A couple of weeks ago, I met with one of my advisers to talk about unfinished projects of the eighteenth century. "Have you considered the gender implications of this tendency not to finish projects?" he asked, noting the mania for Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in continental Europe (this is a bizarre, delightful web site where you can sign up to receive e-mails from Werther).

"Wait, are we talking about the eighteenth century or today?" I asked.

So it turns out that there have been many periods in history when it's been popular to be a rambling man.

With Werther and especially Wilhelm Meister in mind, I'm recommeding Ken Dornstein's new book The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky. Ken Dornstein's brother, David, died in the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. David Dornstein left behind boxes of notebooks, diaries, letters, and stories; it was also rumored that he was carrying the only draft of a great novel when the plane exploded. As Ken looks through "the Dave archive," he realizes that his brother had no finished projects but thousands of fragments, false starts, half-realized plans, boasts of future fame, notebook entries about his inability to write, letters to reach out to his friends and family, and other stuff. The notebook entries and letters show his brother's fits of mania and depression and his belief-anxiety that writing would be the way to channel that lack of control into something productive and creative. Ken's book is about his attempt to organize all this into something more than just ephemera.

The book takes a while to get going. David Dornstein's letters and notebook entries are difficult to read; if you wanted to diagnose the style, you could call it writer-based, rather than reader-based, prose. Ken includes letters he wrote to David's friends and former girlfriends at the time, and these, too, are so personal that they're remarkable only for their attempt at trying to communicate about loss and grief and finding only banalities or silence. I was worried that the whole book might be a collection of these letters, but Ken is able to do what his brother was not: he's able to turn these first tries into something coherent. Ken thanks A.M. Homes in the acknowledgements section: it would be a great idea to read this book and her new book, This Book Will Save Your Life, (a novel about a man who tries to change his life through good acts--I'm sure there's an edge somewhere) together.

David was obsessed with cataloguing and de-cataloguing his work; when he couldn't organize something, he'd assure his future readers that such inchoateness was intentional and the only way his work could be understood:
He had prepared his 'literary estate' for posterity, believing that a tragic early death would ensure his literary greatness. He wrote notes in the margins of his notebooks 'for the biographers'; he instructed his correspondents to 'save this letter or you'll be sorry.' He imagined scholars trying to figure out the riddle of his life in light of his untimely death. He suggested topics for graduate student theses: 'The Nature of Chance Violence in Dornsteinian Thought'; 'Dornstein and the Notebook Form of the Novel.' He pictured his friends poring over his pages to see what he had been working on for all those years, to look for their own names if nothing else. I felt stuck with the knowledge that no one ever came.
Inside, I found a page with this sentence written over and over:

Humorously, tragically, I really am starting to believe that the only way any of these notebooks will mean anything is if I die an early death.

David gave a lot of thought to the manner in which he would die, and he concluded that only a sudden, violent death would do. The title page of his Memoirs features a headline from The New York Times--DIES IN AIR CRASH--along with this caution to his imagined biographers: 'There is NOTHING accidental or random in any of Dornstein's work, especially in this early work.'

David's seeming anticipation of the circumstances would be a weird coincidence, but Ken's book comes together as he tries to explain David's obsession with leaving his legacy in fragments. In a creative writing class at Brown, David collected fragments of his diaries, letters, and stories, titled the project The Fall Journal, and presented them to his instructor, Robert Coover, for his comments. Ken includes Coover's written comments to David about the project:
When nothing else works, [the narrator] throws in some old story fragments, hoping for the best... The writing here, for all its variety of subject matter, culled from the popular press, dredged up from memory and fantasy, or borrowed from your diurnal rounds, has a tendency to sound somehow all the same, chewed up in your prodigious word-processing machine into a kind of even mash of hysteria and fatigue. What you look at, you turn away from. What you invent, you abandon or wreck....

As Ken discusses how his brother responded to Coover's comments on his writing--in his subsequent revisions to The Fall Journal David played up the fragmentary collection instead of making it more coherent--he makes a guess at understanding his brother's fantasies of leaving a literary estate of fragments and riddles. He'd take the criticism and make it into the explanation for his creativity, not the block holding it back. He's only half-joking about the graduate thesis on the notebook form of the novel.

That reversal becomes the organizing principle of Ken's book, too. What seemed like a set of disconnected false starts in the first section of the book--clippings of news stories about the bombing, a history of Pan Am airlines, a trip to Lockerbie, an ambivalent story about his connection with the woman David lived with before he died--are Ken Dornstein's own version of fragmentary composition. These early brief chapters are more readable than his brother's work, but they're included in the same spirit of keeping a record of all of one's attempts to make sense of something incoherent.

Ken Dornstein notes in the appendix that the title of the book comes from Auden's "Musee de Beaux Arts", and it's a lovely, sad connection to make between Icarus and David Dornstein. The other echo in the poem was in Coover's comment on David's work: "What you look at, you turn away from. What you invent, you abandon or wreck..." (Auden: "In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster"). The second half of the memoir is about Ken's own problems with turning away from people: he falls in love with David's former girlfriend but keeps turning away from her. So here, too, he at first identifies with his brother and then finds a way to give himself a second (and third, and fourth) chance.

I was reminded of Mikal Gilmore's amazing memoir of his brother's life and death, Shot in the Heart, (Ken Dornstein quotes a paragraph from Gilmore at the end of the book) and Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty. I highly recommend all three of these memoirs.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Apr 29, 08:41:00 PM:
Hey Alice, this is a wonderful post. The Werther site reminded me of Richardson's prefaces and his own epistolary exchange with his readers. It seems like these truncated exchanges keep haunting us...
Hope all is well,
Adela (excuse my inarticulate post but I'm taking a break in-between pre-oral questions!)
Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sun Apr 30, 01:48:00 PM:
Yes, great post; I've been hearing about this book for a while, must get hold of a copy and take a look. (I love that Gilmore "Shot in the Heart," I must have bought four or five copies of it over the years to give away to people--one of the things it's best on is the way that even when you're full siblings the family you're in is a different one due to the passage of time.) Also haven't read the Patchett (or Grealy's own memoir), but was looking at "Autobiography of a Face" the other day in the bookstore & wondering whether I should get it.

Let us talk more about the unfinished/fragment/gender questions next time we meet in person! Interesting. I've got some sociological theories about 19th-century British culture that lead to an account of why women were less likely to be drawn to the prestige of the fragment/traumatized artist than men: sources include the Bronte family but also the very interesting chapters in the opening of Susan Pedersen's biography of Eleanor Rathbone, take a look & you will see.