Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces is too overwhelming a book for me: overwhelming with sadness, with detail, with history, and with language evocative of inescapable grief. As such, it took me many weeks to read. One passage does a particularly good job of succinctly encapsulated the inescapable historical anguish that makes this small book so heavy:
History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.
That kind of curse extends to all the characters in the book. None find any comprehensive solace; none manage to lift their feet above the boggy terrain of the past and make their way to a firmer present shore. The book presents a number of brief illuminations, but each has the ultimate character of being palliative rather than redemptive:
But sometimes the world disrobes, slips its dress off a shoulder, stops time for a beat. If we look up at that moment, it’s not due to any ability of ours to pierce the darkness, it’s the world’s brief bestowal. The catastrophe of grace.
These people are swept along like houses carried by hurricane waters – whether floating towards tragedies or temporary reprieves from grief. The point is hammered home with talk of tornadoes transporting people or ripping them apart; lightning providing unexpectedly cooked geese, straight from the sky, or simply flattening people. Michaels’ people do not possess agency of the kind that we perceive ourselves to have, and which is essential to optimism.
The author’s approach to thought is almost completely unlike my own. Rather than focusing on patterns, both the author and the protagonists focus on details. Rather than drawing comprehensible conclusions from extrapolated data, they draw opaque, personal, emotional conclusions – as veiled as modern poems. The book is beautiful and powerful, but also soul-sapping and exhausting. It is a book with depths to reward you for your struggle.
In a way, this book is the antithesis of Nabokov’s Lolita. There, inherent ugliness is flawlessly concealed by language that has the power to immerse your whole mind in the succession of sounds and syllables. In Fugitive Pieces, your mind can never quite get to the language because it is hampered at all times by the heaviness of grief.