There’s risk in picking up a book by an unfamiliar author, especially if the topic is not clearly utilitarian (how to succeed at success) or dramatic (lost in the woods; learning to kill). The risk is largely related to voice: are you going to like the author? Will you find her ideas relevant, or at least interesting? Will what she writes engage or will, halfway through, it turn out she’s overstayed her welcome? In short: is this worth your time?
Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Regarding Amy Fusselman the answer, thankfully, is an unequivocal yes. Savage Park reads like an amazing, late-night, nearly life-changing conversation with a too-perceptive friend—one who so succinctly expresses existential problems that it helps you to envision an entirely new (and possibly happier) way of living. Everyone should have a friend like that. Fusselman’s prose is, in fact, so genuinely reachable, so friendly and open, even while she appears to be rearranging her (and our) sense of self and the universe, that I’m going to go ahead and call her Amy for the rest of the review.
Amy also has friend like that: Yelena, a “USSR-born, New-York-City bred, Theater-direct[or]” living in Japan. The book begins when Yelena invites Amy, her two boys (5 and 2), and her husband, who live in New York, to visit “for at least a month.” This sets off in Amy the natural but-how-would-we-even-do-that kind of hand-wringing typical of people who are, as the book’s subtitle states, nervous, distracted, and afraid to die: “The distance was just space, for her. And she did not view space as an enemy. She was not worried, as I was, about what it would be like to fly 13 hours with small children.”
The book is, in part, a tale of Amy’s struggles to be less nervous, more present, and perhaps less afraid to die. So she goes to Japan. It’s difficult and uncomfortable. She never really adjusts to the time difference. She remains awash in a sea of language she cannot even hope to comprehend. Yelena, who also has a young boy, takes Amy’s family to places for kids, one of which ends up being the “Savage Park” of the book’s title. The park is essentially a large patch of semi-tended dirt. There are a few trees and rolling hills. But instead of having playground equipment built by professional engineers, the park’s structures are made entirely of scrap wood by the children, who avidly nail things together high up in the trees, build small fires, and tear old furniture apart for more wood. The park, as it turns out, is an “Adventure Playground”: a type of purposely junk-filled creative space popular in Scandinavia and northern Europe, but almost unheard of in America. Amy is initially horrified, but her sons (as well as Yelena’s boy) are enraptured, and end up staying at the park for hours.
This experience becomes the foundation for the book’s three interrelated topics: space, and the way different spaces accommodate, estrange, coddle, or threaten inhabitants (which Amy posits it’s easier to focus on when you’re entirely undistracted by language); danger and death, and the way Americans in particular organize public areas and social conventions in order to deny, as much as possible, that being hurt and dying are inevitable, even typical events; and the state of creativity and play, the most serious and involved activities for young children, which (to Amy’s astonishment) Yelena appears to be able to access at will even as an adult. This accessible state of creativity is something that Amy yearns to achieve herself and preserve in her children.
Topics like these have historically fallen under the purview of certain French thinkers (Roland Barthes, Gaston Bachelard) and a book like this easily could have winged its way into the atmosphere of rarified philosophy. But Amy is so engaging and grounded, her concerns rooted in such specific, well-detailed experiences, that the prose instead remains as vital and present as if she were grabbing your wrist across your kitchen table. In a passage where she tries to understand what she loves about the Savage Park, she writes:
It wasn’t just that the children were flying in the air there, it wasn’t just that they were making insanely great structures, it wasn’t just that the play-park hut was a junk-lover’s dream. It was because the entire place existed, at all, for just this reason: this full and complete allowance of a self, including all the ineptness, failure, and possibility of death, because it is understood that only with this allowance can we have the capacity to be great.
Amy’s experiences in Japan, and her consideration of these ideas, necessarily remind her of other experiences, and she weaves them deftly into the book. She writes about a class with Philippe Petit, the high-wire walker famous for his 1974 stroll between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. She writes about finding help for a pedestrian with a broken leg on 72nd Street and Central Park West. She remembers an interview she did with Ettore Sottsass, the well-known architect and designer. All of these recollections give her room to consider intersections of creativity, space, and danger. But mostly she thinks about that dangerous playground.
[B]ulldozing a space, padding and disinfecting it, and then congratulating ourselves on how we can sit back with our handhelds to leave our babies and children alone to “explore” is one approach. It has its drawbacks, however, including the one that babies and children, who quickly become young adults, do not learn how to take risks in space, a process which ultimately makes them less safe in space, not more.
Allowing babies, children, and young adults to spend as much time as possible with the lowest level of interference in the highest-quality environment we can provide for them, that is, an environment which we have not engineered [...] this is another approach. It also has drawbacks, the major one being the pain of our own uncertainty and vulnerability [...]
But it would be worth it, if we could do this. Americans, I beseech you, it is not as impossible as it seems.
But here’s the thing about life-changing conversations: they rarely change our lives the way we hope. Conceiving of an entirely new and more perceptive (and happier) way of living often just reminds us, in the harsh light of morning, how far that is from how we live. We wake up and fall back into our old routines. Amy writes not only about how much her time in Japan changed her, but also how difficult it’s been to make those changes stick. The difficulty, however, doesn’t make the experience any less precious.
And a book like this is precious. Amy tries to get the nervous, distracted, death-fearing reader in all of us to reconsider our aversions to danger, our unconscious approaches to public space, and our prizing of work and responsibility over creativity and play: in short, to rethink our lives. What could be more worth our time than that?