New York, NY: FSG Originals, 2017. 240 pages. $15.00.
Durga Chew-Bose’s lengthy, striking essay “Heart Museum,” the first piece in her debut essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood, states her aesthetic outright: she values digression more than orderliness, attempts more than completion.
And yet, despite claims, no writer hopes for ideas to take complete shape. Approximation is the mark. Many times, writing that clinches lacks incandescence—the embers have cooled. A need for completeness can, off and on, squander cadence. Isn’t it fun to read a sentence that races ahead of itself?
Chew-Bose’s writing doesn’t take complete shape; it feels approximate, more suggestive than explanatory. Reading her, one becomes aware of the reading experience, of wanting to slow down and savor, of wondering where all this is going. In a way, the essay doesn’t “go” anywhere; its end refuses the idea of endings: “Because is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated? The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.”
“Heart Museum” opens with an emoji. Not knowing what the pink building with an “H” on it means, Chew-Bose assumes at first that the emoji signifies a heart hospital. Its real meaning is “love hotel,” but the image of the heart hospital has captured her imagination. Between that opening image and her closing anecdote, ninety pages later, about a driver in Mumbai who gets lost driving to what he calls a “heart museum,” Chew-Bose moves from the heart as an organ in need of care to the heart as an object worthy of collection and display.
The first essay is a tribute to the wonders of the heart, to its marvelous consistency, its more than one hundred thousand beats every day. Those beats are the steady rhythm around which our thoughts and emotions ebb and flow and our consciousness fades in and out in sleep and dreams. The form of the essay follows this pattern too: it also has a rhythm, a steadiness to it, while at the same time its images and ideas flit and flicker. The rhythm comes through Chew-Bose’s repetitions, for example beginning every paragraph for several pages with “even when”: “Even when we’re pressing snooze and rolling over in bed, folding ourselves into our covers and postponing the day’s bubbling over,” or “Even when a thought springs fresh in my mind on the subway and solves an essay I’d just about abandoned.” Even then, the heart keeps beating. Or, later, as she is thinking about everything she has done and hasn’t done—“Did I discern between admiring and enjoyment? Did I try on a dress? Even once? Did I disturb some peace? Experience some peace?”—every paragraph begins with some form of “Did I?”: “How quickly did I quit my diary? How many ballet documentaries did I watch?”
Amid this repetition, her sentences leap from ignored emails to ignored calls from her father to footsteps following her at night to a cab lurching forward to her leg twitching as she falls asleep. Her heart beats reliably through terror when a bullet breaks the glass in her apartment window, through watching a fur coat slide off a woman’s shoulders, through a kiss on the neck, through meeting someone new who loves a movie as much as she does. It’s hard to say what the essay is about exactly, except that it attempts to capture the paradox of living with both constancy and change. It’s about the possibility of finding something permanent in a world, and in a body, that’s in constant movement.
As the accompaniment to all the fluctuations and repetitions, she writes about her family, her writing, her memory, her childhood. As we read we learn about her life, but mostly we get a sense of how her mind works and what ideas occupy her thoughts. As she tells family stories, describes her friendships, pays tribute to the movies and books that have shaped her, tells little stories from daily life, her sentences and paragraphs drift associatively, touching on a subject, moving away from it, circling back. The genius of this essay is the way it is chock-full of lovely, concrete images while at the same time reaching toward the abstract:
First love is all sensation and ambient zooms, and letting the world ebb. Like writing, occasionally, it feels combustive. Greedy. It’s unsophisticated and coaxes you into making promises about the far future and imbibing the moment. Into growing gullible fast, frantically so, and forgetting about yourself—about your exception. Writing does the same. It lays siege.
The essay is both expansive and aphoristic, adding more and more items to its lists and then landing elegantly on one pithy sentence. It revels in paradox: “Because doesn’t smallness prime us to eventually take up space?” Chew-Bose works with smallness and spaciousness, steadiness and fluctuation, wild flights and returns. The beating of the heart—the way it sneaks into this essay again and again—provides a seriousness within which she has room to play.
The other essays in the book are shorter and somewhat more straightforward in their ideas, but they continue threads of thought from “Heart Museum,” including the relationship between language, writing, and identity. The essay “D As In” begins with the trouble people often have pronouncing Chew-Bose’s first name, Durga, and how her reluctance to correct them is a form of self-erasure. This, in turn, may keep her from feeling she can take up space in the world, space that seems easily and thoughtlessly filled by those whose names do not surprise and confuse. Self-erasure fits uneasily in the essay form, which has always emphasized the “I”:
The first-person essay is not one that comes naturally to me. Who is this “I”? Am I entitled to her? Is she my voice, or is she the voice that is expected of me?
The essay moves towards a note of triumph, as she celebrates the generations of women whose names also begin with “D” who made her what she is. But the off-kilter relationship to the first person remains, giving her writing its fruitful self-awareness and its air of questioning and exploration.
Several other essays take up questions of cultural identity. “Part of a Greater Pattern” explores the legacy of her parents, both born in India, and what it feels like to be first-generation Canadian. As a child, she marveled at the confidence of older girls, mostly white, whose mannerisms were “big and loud” and who seemed to lack self-consciousness. She wasn’t ready at that age “[t]o scrutinize my weird, even toxic, relationship to the exclusionary appeal of these older white girls. To their ubiquity. To their immunity.” Growing up was a process of discovering how much race and her parents’ immigration story shaped her own sense of isolation. She realizes that her tendency toward self-erasure comes from her father, as do her feelings of being a perpetual outsider: “Nobody ever teaches you how to be a person torn-between. How to shape your breaths so as to accommodate both the solitude and the stampede.”
In spite of all her uncertainty about identity and about claiming the authorial “I,” the shorter essays frequently chart a movement toward self-confidence: “Tan Lines,” for example, describes the ways even her well-meaning friends are insensitive about her skin (“You don’t even have to work for your tan”), but ends triumphantly as she rejects society’s “uninvited sartorial shoulds.”
The essays in Too Much and Not the Mood are personal in the sense that we learn about Chew-Bose’s life and thoughts, but they are also “personal” in their exploration of how writing captures and fails to capture the self. There’s a tension between the exploratory, inconclusive nature of “Heart Museum,” which takes up over a third of the book, and the greater confidence of the later, shorter essays. This is not a contradiction so much as a display of the different ways the essay as a form can present identity and consciousness. Chew-Bose has proven that she is a master of both the more traditional essay that shows change and growth and of an experimental form that mimics a beating heart at the same time as it reaches toward the ineffable.