The Sorrow Proper
(Dzanc Books, 2015)
For a form defined by length, the novel depends remarkably on what it leaves out. Even a novelist who prefers to let the weeds go, a Proust or a Wallace, has to prune away a few. Still, I’ve rarely come across such pruning as in Lindsey Drager’s The Sorrow Proper. She shows us a small apocalypse, the collapse of a way of life, yet does without violence or extremes. Rather, as their little world goes under, those clinging to the wreckage keep their responses wry. The other principal storyline follows another sort of collapse, it’s a tragic love affair, and yet it never quite specifies the tragedy. The couple’s end risks a surprising open-endedness, a trick I’ll explain in time. For now, I’ll just point out that both lovers, though they too prompt an occasional chuckle, or even a sigh, remain unnamed throughout. Small wonder that Sorrow Proper draws its title from a meditation on absence, “the absence of eternity.”
This idea appears in the epigraph, a few lines from the philosopher Paul Ricur. Drager clearly knows the Frenchman’s work better than I do, but like other writers, I appreciate Ricur’s argument that consciousness depends on narrative. Given this “absence of eternity” in our lives, claims Time and Narrative, whatever we know arrives only via the medium of symbols, and so we build self and world by manipulating those symbols (alphabetic, hieroglyphic, what have you) into story. With this premise in mind, Drager’s text emerges as a story towards story: skeleton pieces that, in their falling apart, also suggest how they might be put together.
The bones themselves are scrawled with symbols. The novel’s first line, “The library may close,” both puts us amid language-objects and underscores their fragility. For the librarians in their “cardigans,” the threat of shutdown shakes them to their core: “That night at the bar, they [...] debate the meaning of their work.” These women have names, unlike the lovers, but while Mercedes tends to misanthropy and Avis to melancholy, none round out into actual characters. We see them only over shots and beers or between the bookshelves, and their italicized exchanges (Drager also prunes away quotation marks) feel like strophe and anti-strophe. Which isn’t to say the old girls are dull, not when they show such spunk. They rise to the ontological challenge of calling themselves “information science technicians,” and they may even save their library—depending on another philosophical question, namely, what’s a library?
As for the doomed couple, whose story occupies more of the text, they’re identified only as “the photographer”—he’s the man—and “the deaf mathematician.” Both lines of work, to be sure, create representations of reality. “The camera,” thinks the woman, “is the mechanism through which he organizes the world,” just as, in her own classroom at a school for the deaf, she tries to work through syllogism to sound argument. But for these two the signifying never stops. They meet in the library, where the photographer was exhibiting, and woman’s disability required that she pass him a note. Later, they speak in sign language, and as a love-game, he writes on her body. Also he works old-school, in a basement darkroom. Down there, as negatives yield different prints, his face runs “a gamut of emotions: surprise, concern, satisfaction.”
Speaking of emotion, isn’t that the problem for fiction like this? How long can we care about such “people?” Yet while Drager doesn’t create character, she gets off psychological niceties: “at some point she asks if they have any ice cream, and he knows enough to bring the whole box.” The librarians are treated to such pin-prick insights as well, and they can make you laugh. How is an e-book like a dive bar? Read The Sorrow Proper and find out. Also the novel sustains a formal regularity, a kind of plot-surrogate. Its passages all share a similar brevity and alternate reliably among the perspectives of photographer, mathematician, and librarians.
Then there’s the surrogate suspense: the mystery of the affair’s end. Early on we read that the deaf woman died, we see the stunned photographer stroking her body’s “matted hair”—but soon after that, during two pages in her perspective, it’s he who died. The mathematician can hardly move; changing anything around her “would be participating in his end.” Then in later passages, we have both unhappy possibilities reiterated. The device sets the novel apart, a strange means indeed for showing how “love is the study of change.” Better yet, when the beloved goes, the survivor reads the remaining signs with well-nigh poetic intensity:
After his death, there is no one to hold her like a spoon, stroke the skin beneath her shirt, finger the pocket of her navel, that universal scar. When asked, she would call it a haunting.
Sorrow Proper can feel like a math formula, sketched on a blank space (indeed, a few pages feature empty rectangles), but it understands how those numbers suggest the presence of eternity: a haunting, a shaping. Myself, I think of a key incident in the story of my life, that day in workshop when Donald Barthelme told us, “You should read philosophy, because philosophy takes you to metaphor.”
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!