Loitering: New and Collected Essays
(Tin House Books, 2014)
Charles D’Ambrosio wants his essays to live. This is not to say he hopes they endure as literature, though he no doubt does, as any writer would. Rather, by investing them with a high-minded casualness of style that indulges flights, digressions, intrusions, and colloquialisms, he creates an effect whereby the reader is not absorbing the pronouncements of an authority asserting his mastery over a topic so much as hearing very eloquent off-the-cuff thoughts by an impressively perceptive friend. His prose—incisive, playful, and candid—revels in its natural elaborations. It is designedly wild.
In his preface to Loitering: New and Collected Essays (which, in characteristic aversion to constriction, he titles “By Way of a Preface”), D’Ambrosio lays down the foundational precept of his philosophy. “One of my earliest ideas about writing was that the rhythms of prose came from the body, and […] I still believe that,” he says, later applying the instinct directly: “I relied on my ear to a ridiculous extent [as a young writer], trusting that if I got the sound right—the music, the mood, the feel of things—then sense might eventually make an appearance.” His fidelity to the idea that sense comes from the senses meant embracing fluidity as a writer. As a fallible, experiencing being, he would not give in to the impulse to select a governing paradigm. The personal essay became his “forum for self doubt,” a way to exalt ever-protean odysseys of thought in a world that considers it “recreant to waver.” To clear the line between body and page was therefore to put awareness and empathy ahead of the yearning for conclusion. D’Ambrosio’s essays inhabit a space of not-knowing, of wondering, of struggle as ethic.
Of course, the yearning for conclusion is a powerful one, even in someone who has made a practice of resisting it. A suicidal strain runs in the D’Ambrosio family. The author’s youngest brother took his own life, and another brother tried and failed with a leap off a bridge. One would imagine that the meditations resulting from such trauma might ink into the basic vocabulary of literary pursuit. That is certainly the case for D’Ambrosio, who maintains a deep emotional connection to his brothers, and for whom the central agon of his explorations lies between the human need for answers to existential angst and the often painful reality that answers are only to be found subjectively. “Is silence for a writer tantamount to suicide?” he asks. Life continues via continuous questioning. To die is to fall silent, and to fall silent is to die.
D’Ambrosio finds a kindred spirit in J.D. Salinger, in whose work he identifies an aversion to falseness presented as bosom companion to a fixation on suicide. “A writer, in the wake of a suicide, might find all coherent narratives suspect, all postures false […] might finally come to question and mistrust the integrity of his own inventions,” D’Ambrosio says, extending Holden Caulfield’s “voracious doubt” of the self. He thwarts this threat to the writer’s voice through a Salinger-esque hyperawareness, not just of “conceits” and “phoniness,” as harped on by Salinger’s characters, but of the writer as creator of reality in the cosmos of the page. Self-consciousness is a virtue, here. “These are probably just the humdrum dilemmas any writer encounters,” he says of the sometimes random, sometimes superficial variations of style he embraced in his early work. Elsewhere, in a gloss on the psychology of suicide, he admits, “I’m throwing these ideas out scattershot,” and “I’m really oversimplifying here.” D’Ambrosio will remind his readers that he is merely human, and a human being, like Holden, is a character in a story written by the self. To assert a more formal authority would be the height of falseness.
Structuring his explorations, D’Ambrosio travels outside in. His poet’s eye lands first on that primary seat of superficiality, décor, or perhaps more accurately named “facades,” where inner hopes are reflected outward. An implacable cynicism insists that the way we craft our surroundings to represent us often belies personal quintessence. In his tour of manufactured homes in Washington, D’Ambrosio bemoans “a sincere imitation of [a regular house] […]. It’s that inserted layer of sincerity that rings false.” The falseness here is the attempt to sell a pre-packaged life, free of inconveniences like thought, or self-reflection, or deciding who you are, and the tragedy is the high rate of sale. An analogous response to the dour Moscow Hotel, where the rooms are “an imitation of something nice, an arrangement of resemblances,” yields to a measure of sympathy at an orphanage in Svirstroy, where a boy’s room, with its pictures of rock stars and cars, is “pretty much a rendition of a boy’s room in America, but without the wherewithal.” The author’s more optimistic tone at the orphanage can be attributed to the simple fact that his subjects there are children. If an unhelpful woman in a Russian information booth indicates hopelessness, it is because she has succumbed to the message of her surroundings, whereas Russian kids smoking and using cigarettes as currency is actually “kind of cute.” “The absence of ‘real’ money is essentially the absence of a future,” he says, acknowledging an adult’s perspective. Yet, as children, they have yet to interpret what their cultural décor tells them.
The dynamism of D’Ambrosio’s approach peaks in what paradoxically seems the sole tepid essay in Loitering, a discussion of Richard Brautigan, of whose writing he doesn’t seem particularly fond. One wonders, at first, how the essay made it into the collection. “Brautigan never wrote elegant prose. The sentences sound broken…” he says, before trying to decode Brautigan’s “failed metaphors.” Eventually, he attempts to flip this harsh assessment by suggesting failure as the salient aspect of Brautigan’s work, the word in this case not indicating objectives unmet, but rather that brokenness and incompletion are necessary conditions for the working artist. “Failure is where his writing lives,” D’Ambrosio says. Brautigan’s suicide cinched together his work and his selfhood, reifying D’Ambrosio’s congruence of silence and death. “All his sentences ever needed for completion was a death.”
His comparatively inchoate thoughts on Brautigan, then, get their own chapter and title, but are really an elaborate authorial aside: “I’m oversimplifying here,” “I’m throwing these ideas out scattershot.” D’Ambrosio allows a somewhat tenuous conclusion like the one he draws about Brautigan because he, in fact, rejects conclusions. His goal is to translate to the page the rhythms and music of human behavior as he hears it and feels it. “The critical difference between a poet and a regular citizen is that the poet seeks [the realm of doubt]; it’s where he works, where his office is.”
Of his early experiences reading fiction, D’Ambrosio says, “I saw that stories looked squarely and bravely at lives without criticizing or condemning them.” Through the personal essay, he attempts a similar rendition of truth by presenting himself as a living creation-in-flux. In Loitering, D’Ambrosio’s perceptions are shockingly acute, his locutions impressive, his flourishes soaring. But it is the loose breath, the brave brokenness, the admitted limitation that ultimately gives his essays life.