The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert

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Elisa Gabbert has been writing intelligently and entertainingly about perfume for several years now, not just on her own blog, The French Exit, but for various other publications, and while The Self Unstable, her latest book, mentions perfume only once, on page 47, it’s arguably one of the best things she or anyone else has written on the subject. Perfume, as this book demonstrates and most people who love it tend to believe, is about a lot more than perfume.

The book has major sillage, a French term which describes the scent trail a fragrance leaves in its wake. Like a good vintage fragrance—Guerlain’s rich, balsamic but bright Mitsouko, for instance—The Self Unstable has an expansive effect on the imagination, detonating in the mind long after being atomized. Each of the book’s eighty-three pages proposes a compact paragraph of tightly coiled thought. The ideas inside these paragraphs expand and contract within the imagination, shifting vapor-like between meanings and possibilities. The last sentence relates to the first but wouldn’t make much sense directly following it. It’s a fat, dense book composed of wonderfully spare prose, a marvel of thought-provoking concision. Perfumers take note: it’s possible to create a minimal composition without skimping.

It’s doubtful they will. Among perfume lovers, it’s a now frequent lament that perfume isn’t what it used to be. There’s so much of it (over 1,000 new fragrances released in 2013) and so much of that so muchness feels unimaginative, if not thoroughly cynical. All the money and thought goes into the top notes.

So it is with so much else. In a cultural moment which disguises dearth as profusion, presenting such an abundance of paucity, that state of affairs is hardly isolated to perfume. It’s the air we breathe, a surface of surfaces. Something about the form Gabbert has chosen, which in theory resembles, say, the syntax of the Facebook or twitter feed, engages the reader in a weird by-product analysis of the way we receive and organize thought and information these days, how the speed of all this locks out reflection and penetration maybe, and where that might be leaving us.

“They slowed down Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so it stretched over 24 hours,” Gabbert writes:

“The effect was of a continual climbing, with no resolution—just an ever-building terror, the slowest imaginable scream. In a state of heightened time, everything reduces to fear, a sublime fear. If life has any meaning, it comes at the end.”

More than anything, the book seems to be peering into the mechanics of present day self reflection, showing what introspection looks like inside the kaleidoscope of now. It’s one thing to bemoan cultural overload, but what does a steady diet of the stuff actually feel like? The Self Unstable doesn’t answer that question. It isn’t that smug. But it makes you aware of what’s on the plate, and you hear your stomach grumbling as if for the first time. There’s a simultaneous randomness and precision to the writing which ends up feeling like a satire of this moment and an elegy to things you hadn’t quite realized are missing in our ubiquitous thicket of hamster wheel data.

Like the slowed down ninth, the book confronts you with the actual speed of this particular time we’re living in. It’s like a friend we hadn’t realized until much later had left the party. What does that say about our capacity for friendship and attention to detail, and about the possibility of friendship in this kind of noise? Reading The Self Unstable, it’s impossible not to consider all this.

In that endless stream of food photos and pseudo-witty concision there is a nothing that feels like something. This writing shows you what something actually feels like, what it might feel like to be a thoughtful, present tense person, and how far away from remembering that you might be.


Brian Pera is a writer and filmmaker based in Memphis, TN. He is the author of Troublemaker (St. Martin's Press) and the co-editor, with Masha Tupitsyn, of Life As We Show It (City Lights). He was the recipient of a 2012 Creative Capitol grant for his ongoing film series, Woman's Picture, and a line of fragrances with perfumer Andy Tauer related to the films' subjects. Find him at evenlyavenue.com. More from this author →