essay canon dispatch no. 1 — “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard (90’s)

a dark matter halo, far more expansive than the galactic disk, yet (theoretically) what is holding it together. image found here
a dark matter halo, far more expansive than the galactic disk, yet (theoretically) what is holding it together. image found here

“Well, if im gonna commit to a creative non-fiction writing program, i ought to read more of that stuff,” the blogger thought.

i figure there’s more to the alleged CNF canon than John McPhee, and indeed, a list from Lee Gutkind’s nonfiction journal site offers a starting point. my record for sticking to my plans on this blog has been atrocious, and only marginally better irl. but im determined to blog a series with one entry on every selection. Each essay on the list is the arbitrary representative of its respective decade (it seems to be a US-centered list). included with every blog on this reading mission will be a longer excerpt. this current wp theme annoyingly makes quote text italics, so i wont do that with these clips.

Our first contender hit home for me the value of specificity in storytelling. a border collie that is now undeniably on her way out, squirrels in the attic, a missing dead beat husband, and the U of Iowa shooting of ’91 ; we see why the subtitle is “A week in the author’s life when it became impossible to control the course of events. The text opens with an early morning ritual: the author lets the sick dog out before dawn. With only a description of the route from bedroom to kitchen to door we understand the quiet and the darkness of the house, fragmented sentences evoke short and detached observations of a somnambulist.

the week’s problems are quietly introduced. the squirrel room is also “where the vanished husband’s belongings are stored” and that’s that. before that moment the narrator pauses on the night sky:

Mars flashes white, then red, then white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings. It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there.

the word is “surround” as opposed to “revolve,” yet i guess because of the wonderful planet imagery above i think of these male characters as orbiting around the narrator’s subjectivity. the text is the product of a heinous tragedy that is marked as inevitably coming down the line. Gang Lu was a disgruntled and apparently jobless grad student who came second in a dissertation contest, and without postdoc fellowship from the university on account of the bad economy. he shot up the physics building during a meeting on “theoretical space plasma,” the fourth state of matter of the essay’s title.

It’s an example of how to go about writing a traumatic event. it’s so well composed, the setting and people are economically sketched. there’s no need to dump loads of tactile and sensory descriptions achieve a transportation effect — a few strokes here and there serve to guide an engagement between the words and the reader’s memories, and all going well the story world just fills itself in.

the excerpt highlights the judicious descriptions and characterizations. it also contains narrational bits that must be speculation. can we (as writers) do right by the victims of tragedy, of the clones ones taken out of our orbit by violent external forces? Jo Ann Beard is boldly navigating this treacherous field of fabulation and the “true” part of the story on which this genre rests, and it really is a fascinating relationship that is constructed between the narrator and her author’s “characters.” people with their own lives, subjectivities, histories, work, relationships, interests. it may be arguably wrong in a way to write on them, especially in the context of a life-altering rupture. their literary representations are cross-sections left from their impressions left in the narrator’s memory. and yet it’s undeniable that those memories are the narrator’s and hers alone. this may be another, more psychological way to frame our connections with each other and the universe, along with being made of erupted star guts.

Also check out the flash-forward inserted in an early paragraph. by the end of the sentence (with another great quick-sketch description) we forget that it’s technically a fragment; an intrusive thought as grief tends to work, at least for me. it seems to just move through our bodies. Perhaps like dark matter?

“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard

They’re speaking in physics, so I’m left out of the conversation. Chris apologetically erases one of the pictures I’ve drawn on the blackboard and replaces it with a curving blue arrow surrounded by radiating chalk waves of green.

“If it’s plasma, make it in red,” I suggest. We’re all smoking semi-illegally in the journal office with the door closed and the window open. We’re having a plasma party.

“We aren’t discussing plasma,” Bob Smith says condescendingly. A stocky, short-tempered man, he’s smoking a horrendously smelly pipe. The longer he stays in here the more it feels as if I’m breathing small daggers in through my nose. He and I don’t get along; each of us thinks the other needs to be taken down a peg. Once we had a hissing match in the hallway which ended with him suggesting that I could be fired, which drove me to tell him that he was already fired, and both of us stomped into our offices and slammed our doors.

“I had to fire Bob,” I tell Chris later.

“I heard,” he says. Bob is his best friend. They spend at least half of each day standing in front of blackboards, writing equations and arguing about outer space. Then they write theoretical papers about what they come up with. They’re actually quite a big deal in the space-physics community, but around here they’re just two guys who keep erasing my pictures.

Someone knocks on the door and we put our cigarettes out. Bob hides his pipe in the palm of his hand and opens the door.

It’s Gang Lu, the doctoral student. Everyone lights up again. Gang Lu stands stiffly talking to Chris, while Bob holds a match to his pipe and puffs fiercely; nose daggers waft up and out, right in my direction. I give him a sugary smile and he gives me one back. Unimaginable, really, that less than two months from now one of his colleagues from abroad, a woman with delicate, birdlike features, will appear at the door to my office and identify herself as a friend of Bob’s. When she asks, I take her down the hall to the room with the long table and then to his empty office. I do this without saying anything, because there’s nothing to say, and she takes it all in with small, serious nods until the moment she sees his blackboard covered with scribbles and arrows and equations. At that point her face loosens and she starts to cry in long ragged sobs. An hour later I go back and the office is empty. When I erase the blackboard finally, I can see where she laid her hands carefully, where the numbers are ghostly and blurred.

Bob blows his smoke discreetly in my direction and waits for Chris to finish talking to Gang Lu, who is answering questions in a monotone—yes or no or I don’t know. Another Chinese student, Linhua Shan, lets himself in after knocking lightly. He nods and smiles at me and then stands at a respectful distance, waiting to ask Chris a question.

It’s like a physics conference in here. I wish they’d all leave so I can make my usual midafternoon spate of personal calls. I begin thumbing through papers in a businesslike way.

Bob pokes at his pipe with a paper clip. Linhua Shan yawns hugely and then looks embarrassed. Chris erases what he put on the blackboard and tries unsuccessfully to redraw my pecking parakeet. “I don’t know how it goes,” he says to me.

Gang Lu looks around the room with expressionless eyes. He’s sick of physics and sick of the buffoons who practice it. The tall glacial German, Chris, who tells him what to do; the crass idiot Bob, who talks to him as if he is a dog; the student Shan, whose ideas about plasma physics are treated with reverence and praised at every meeting. The woman who puts her feet on the desk and dismisses him with her eyes. Gang Lu no longer spends his evenings in the computer lab down the hall, running simulations and thinking about magnetic forces and invisible particles; he now spends them at the firing range, learning to hit a moving target with the gun he purchased last spring. He pictures himself holding the gun with both hands, arms straight out and steady; Clint Eastwood, only smarter.

He stares at each person in turn, trying to gauge how much respect each of them has for him. One by one. Behind black-rimmed glasses, he counts with his eyes. In each case the verdict is clear: not enough.


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