Possibility: Essays Against Despair

“Possibility: Essays Against Despair,” by Patricia Vigderman

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I like Patricia Vigderman because she likes jickjacking. She describes in “A Writer’s Harvest”, an earlier piece in Possibility: Essays Against Despair, how the sight of that slangy word, in two distinct (but linked) stories—one by Mary Karr, the other by David Foster Wallace—motivate her toward personal tangents and pleasures. “For I am one,” she explains, “whose jickjacking heart does beat for language, and if you tell me a word in the morning, I will try to use it by lunchtime.”

Time and again for Vigderman, the word or vision of a writer (say Proust, or W.G. Sebald) immerses her beneath surfaces. The discoveries she then makes are always floodlit by further questions, additional speculations, which prompt her to reconsider the initial surface. As her mysteries multiply, the mood of the lighting only gets cheerier. Take Vigderman describing how Marfa, Texas got its name from a Russian woman, brought there through her husband in 1881. That fact opens into wider glimpses: how, in determining what to dub a minor water station for trains by drawing from the name of a minor Dostoevsky character, this woman may have linked art from her home country to her new home, a home which, a century following its founding, became less minor, renowned for stores of art galleries, anti-museums, and ghost lights.

Language isn’t all that drives the beat. Works by Vermeer, glimpses into Citizen Kane, or travels to Asia do the trick too. These epigrammatic pieces are always long in inquiry. “Digression will lead both off the track and somewhere very interesting, depending on your tolerance for lyric or syntactical uncertainty,” Vigderman suggests. It is why, when she looks through the lens of literature, she is taken by Grace Paley’s lurches and leaps, or the narrative gusts that blow Dorothea in Middlemarch off her presumed path and plot and, in so doing, echo digressions George Eliot’s own life took.

Patricia Vigderman

Patricia Vigderman

Two essays at the book’s midpoint describe emotional suffering desperately in need of digression. “Not Exactly Kaddish” relays the jolt of specific grief, and then its ceaseless unfolding, while “My Depressed Person (A Monologue)” shines light on the plight of someone dear to the author, through the lens of David Foster Wallace’s struggles with depression in life, and treatments of it in fiction. Vigderman points out that even those personally unscarred by depression hear it dissected throughout contemporary culture. Later she accounts for each balm and pill sought, sampled, and finally tossed aside: “Everything worked and nothing worked.” A medic suggests electroshock therapy, explaining that though the reason behind its benefits isn’t fully grasped, that makes it no different from aspirin. Moments like these remind me of the alarmed buzz I felt while reading “The Crazy State of Psychiatry” in Best American Essays 2012. I won’t force that buzz on you here. Suffice it to say I was left with an impression that, when it comes to healing human minds, we are still working with leeches, running a series of ad-hoc analgesics up the flagpole, and crossing collective fingers that the befuddled brain chemistry under examination bows down.

The first two of this collection’s four sections carried me furthest. Or perhaps more accurately, drew me most often into the author’s lyrical digressions, then sent me off on digressions of my own. The vantage points in latter sections, while strong, felt less panoramic. Still, this book repeatedly encourages dialogue between the one writing its pages and the one holding them. Vigderman (professor at Kenyon College and author of The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner) points out the trouble with accepting all available digressions: a passenger is liable to get queasy from authorial leaps, or at least preoccupied with destination. It is to this author’s credit that as her essays skip tracks, locating new routes without trying to prove their points, I was never in a hurry for the motion to end. It hardly mattered if the links she provided always fit point A to B, or bothered marching in the anticipated direction. It may be that Vigderman is positing, finally, that a mind not at rest is one less likely to sink. Perhaps this is why, on certain days, a word (or activity) like jickjacking is all that’s required to keep us afloat; perhaps not. But until we know why aspirin aids us, why not at least embrace the chance that a single word, or remote trick of light, could be every bit as efficacious?

A native of St. Louis, Matthew Pitt’s first story collection, ATTENTION PLEASE NOW, won the Autumn House Prize, and was later a winner of Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize and finalist for the Texas Writers League Book Award. Pitt’s fiction has received numerous honors and awards, and is forthcoming or has appeared in Oxford American, BOMB, Conjunctions, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES, and elsewhere. More from this author →