What the Darkness Was Forby Dustin Illingworth
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
What possibilities lie within the exquisite coil of the aphorism? What truths, what horrors are condensed within these tightly-wound, enigmatic whorls? What if that perfect literary pressure was somehow released, allowed to stretch itself upon the white of the page, to simmer, to scream? The Correspondence, J.D. Daniels’s début collection, can be read as just such a speculative exercise—picture, say, the Blue Octavo Notebooks lengthening, melting like Dalí’s clocks, and you’re getting close. Blending memoir, travelogue, and essay in the crucible of a gnostic, streetwise prose style, Daniels has shaped a set of dispatches that seem to arrive from the burning rim of contemporary American experience itself. Comprising topics as disparate as Balearic Island fishing and group behavior analysis, Daniels’s “letters” are related in sharp and often savage fragments, the richness of memory, dialogue, and encounter chopped into slivers that gleam like shattered glass along a road. While each piece was published individually within The Paris Review, reading them together can be, at times, revelatory. The missives form something of a dialogue, a dialectic of the void in which Daniels seems to suggest—not without a certain ragged tenderness—that human profundity is often indistinguishable from its weakness, its absurdity.
Take the “Letter From Cambridge,” in which Daniels joins a Brazilian jiu-jitsu club to learn “how to get the shit knocked out of [him]self.” Amidst the daily details of broken noses, arm bars, and locker room fungi, a subtle narrative of failure and transcendent—if brief—achievement is constructed without the reader even being entirely aware of it. Moments sneak up like sucker punches, revealing the beauty that is inextricable from the brutality. “Fighting make my life,” an anonymous Porto Alegre coach
You know what you feel in fight. Excite, scare, now I kill him, oh God, don’t hurt me, I win everything, I never win nothing, you know? And without fighting, when you feel this in your life? For someone else, is once in ten years, when he get marry, when son is born, when his father die. Two, three days in life, he feel this. Here you feel every day.
When Daniels closes the letter with the scriptural anecdote of Jacob wrestling the angel—“I will not let thee go except thou bless me,” Jacob says—it feels earned, even necessary, a pithily profane analogy of how and why humans grapple with themselves and each other. Daniels wields this ennobling material carefully throughout; eschewing the sentimental, his denouements are never less than ambiguous, flashes of illumination which only serve to emphasize the towering dark.
While both the “Letter from Level Four” and the “Letter From the Primal Horde” are explicitly concerned with mental health, the corrosion of the mind by drugs, time, and biology is explored throughout the collection. Daniels, who admits to a brief stay in a psychiatric ward, neither glorifies nor condemns the paranoia that pulses at the seams of these recollections, which include his relationship with a schizophrenic kindergarten teacher and a deep dive into immersive group psychoanalysis; rather, he allows the experiences to complicate any working theory of a static reality, the prospect of which he is highly suspicious:
Years of my life are in this paragraph: reading the book of Deuteronomy behind a cash register in a parking garage, drinking a six-pack and eating an onion sandwich in my studio apartment. And all of this they told me was reality. There are no other worlds than this one. There isn’t even this one.
The collection’s centerpiece, “Letter From Kentucky,” finds Daniels revisiting his hometown after many years away. That he opens on an extended genealogical record—a set of backcountry begats tracing Daniels’ family history within the state—seems appropriate; the letter finds Daniels more interested in the geography of family than of Kentucky, his enigmatic father being its central feature, the faded spot on the map his finger has traced most often. The recollection unfolds on highways and back roads, the routes like scars, the shabby rural industry achieving a Proustian resonance. If Daniels is working in familiar territory here—“It’s an old story. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh: you go back to the place but the place isn’t there anymore”—the rawness and intensity with which he is haunted by his father is a powerful tonic to convention. “I didn’t want to write about my father,” Daniels says, “but I don’t seem to have much choice. There is no such thing as a repressed impulse: the inside and the outside are the same side.” There are stories of a confused violence levied against Daniels and his family, a violence that is meant as a kind of corrective against a changing world:
The second time I saw my father cry was while he was strangling me. He had said my friends Scott and Allen and Gary were no-good weirdos and long-haired faggots, and I was on the verge of becoming one, too, and that if I didn’t act right he was going to cut my hair himself with the lawn mower. […] “My family is falling apart,” he said, and it was true, I was destroying our family, why couldn’t I do as I was told without having impulses and desires of my own. That is the second time I saw my father cry. The third time is private.
If Daniels is largely forgiving—“His aim was to protect me from the darkness all around us, using the darkness in himself”—the savagery of this inarticulate love still tears at Daniels, tormenting him—and little wonder. At this point, we have seen how the author himself writes the darkness for his own protection. Like father, like son: “All that darkness had to be good for something, didn’t it? That was what the darkness was for—wasn’t it?—not only for tormenting him and, using him as its instrument, everyone he loved?”
Who, finally, are we to believe is on the receiving end of this eponymous correspondence? Though it isn’t specified, one suspects Daniels of using the letter—that perfect written intimacy between two people—as a novel way to speak with and to himself, an epistolary Ouroboros in which writing is also reading, and literary entombing is also a kind of existential exhumation. “There are visions a man can only tolerate in a mirror,” Daniels writes. “To see them face-to-face turns him to stone.” And what a mirror this collection turns out to be. Brutal, oblique, funny, and wise, The Correspondence is unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year, the cry of Lot’s wife as she is looking back, already becoming salt, a vision that lays waste to our “new world, where all the old mistakes waited to be made again.”
DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.