Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2017. 304 pages. $16.00.
Feverland hurts. It is a harsh place to be, a land of intensity and insecurity. Alex Lemon’s second memoir is a meditation on the body—on physical and emotional pain and the ways to cope with that trauma if it cannot be eradicated.
My old body, that dear old friend, is a garment that I can’t stop trying to fit into. Over and over until it becomes so threadbare, so tattered and shabby, that I can see right through it and I am forced to come to terms with myself.
The memoir explores that act of trying on the self, “over and over”—this time, legs first; this time, over the head. The fabric wears thinner as Feverland progresses, as Lemon tries different fits and views his reflection from every angle. The memoir asks what remains when our guises have worn away and we’re left bare. After suffering, what serves as relief?
Feverland is subtitled A Memoir in Shards, and it’s fragmented in more ways than one. Time skips around throughout, and each chapter follows a different structural form than the one that precedes it. Some chapters read like extended prose poems and others follow a more traditional narrative arc, but the majority fall somewhere between the two, jumping lithely from facts to anecdotes. Points of view shift freely as well, changing to suit the space Lemon wants to give to the prose and the reader. We follow the “him” of the narrator, or of the person he’s imagining himself to be; the “I” of confession, both of trespasses and of great love; and the “you,” which pushes the reader to consider their own body as an instrument of pain. In a few particularly haunting sections, this includes imagining the experience of torture: “A cloth bag is stuffed over your head, jerked taut, and then taped around your neck like a collar.”
The only recurring chapter title in the memoir, “Migrants in Feverland,” follows the author at different points of his life. As he progresses from “the kid” and “the lost man” to “the professor” and “the father,” Lemon explores how he understands himself in relation to others over time. There are moments of togetherness in these chapters, which are still somehow lonely. The versions of Lemon here are often inadequate, unequal to the task of being what others need him to be. But through the distance of third person, we see that he is trying and feeling all the way through it. The shards of this memoir—not pieces, but sharp, glistening bits—and the gymnastics of their perspectives lends a visceral quality to the experience of reading Feverland. It’s impossible to stop paying attention, to simply let the words wash over you. Lemon is reaching for the brilliance of memory and truth despite the jagged edges, and the reader is looking just over his shoulder, reaching too.
The language throughout Feverland is as striking and grisly as the memoir’s content. “I’m not sure what to think about all the blood that wants to come out of me,” he writes. Lemon’s attic and garage are filled with milling and decaying rats. Later, he says, “I am bloated with mud and sickness.” The prose is lucid and then frantic, thick with the body fear and logic of a fever dream. Lemon fixates on his ailments and symptoms—brain bleeds, muscle cramping, panic attacks, vertigo, and more. His doctors try new diagnoses and medications to no avail. “I’m not lucky enough to have the terror of a nameable malady,” says Lemon. Enter Henry Gustav Molaison, a patient who underwent a medical lobotomy intended to cure his epilepsy and was, as a result, rendered an amnesiac, unable to form new memories. Molaison is “a prisoner in the solitary confinement of the present tense,” and in a way, Lemon is as well: “Each day I remember less about what has happened to me. Each day I grow more puzzled about what is and what is not—when that, what is, what’s not, why now?”
Thus trapped in the present tense, what the narrator desperately seeks is connection. Multiple sections begin with lists that link people and events: “One hundred and eighteen years before the day Rilke died, the seventeenth president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was born. Eighty-one years before the day Rilke died, Texas became the twenty-eighth state in the Union.” The connections feel tenuous, but they are an effort to draw patterns throughout history and experience. They’re asking if we’re all suffering from the same condition as the amnesiac Molaison. Why can’t we see these patterns of the past, Lemon asks, and their implications for our future?
If the present tense is to be Lemon’s cell and sentence, the memoir counters, at least there is joy to be had there. The relationships that bookend Feverland, and therefore perhaps define it, are those that Lemon forges with his family. In the opening section: “I heart your body. Your body, I heart. I heart the darkness my boy tells me he knows.” Later, at the birth of his son:
My boy—who does not yet have a name, who will not be anything but baby boy for the next seven hours, who is simply my son, my grim-slicked boy, my wailing and blood-roped son, my boy, blinking, teary, how much pain you look like you’re in, my son, my son, my crumple-fleshed son—the head of my son appears in the muggy space between his mother’s knees. I swear to you: there was nothing there and then suddenly, there was.
And then, toward the end: “[My son] is smart enough to be as good or as bad as he will ever want to be at anything he might ever want to do. There are times, when Felix and I are alone, that I feel as if I am in the presence of something impossibly large and powerful.” Feverland holds startling moments of joy, made even more striking by the suffering that surrounds them—the darkness in each beautiful, glistening shard. Here, we see the poet’s penchant for juxtaposition: shadow and light, two disparate pieces made comparable by proximity. “Why is there night? Where do the lizards go? Why do we have to sleep?” Lemon’s son asks, and in a child’s voice, the memoir’s habit of questioning takes on a new innocence, a levity. Why gains a sense of wonder.
Lemon’s connection with his son—who is of him, really—serves as Feverland’s gesture toward tomorrow. How strange that the body that has failed the narrator, that has frustrated and frightened him, is also the source of his greatest joy. There is love to be had in Feverland, and darkness. Hurt throughout all of it. But what are shards really, except the pieces of something whole? Whether or not it seems sudden, the move toward hope is a life raft in a book with so much pain. And the reader, like Lemon, grabs for it.