(Orison Books, 2019)
One of the adjectives I understand least re reviews of literature is the term brave. I'm not sure when it arrived in broad use; I know a decade back it seemed the go-to term. As I understood it, brave denoted work which illuminated difficult stuff that'd yet been as elegantly lit, or work which "took on" "topics" which were "difficult." I never got a complete sense, and I still don't know what brave literature reads like, which is frustrating, though I do wonder if Jeremy Griffin's new book Oceanography, the winner of the 2018 Orison Fiction Prize, is brave.
This is Griffin's second book; his first, A Last Resort for Desperate People (2012), was very good but not excellent. He writes real-world, closely-observed stories about folks who hurt, and Last Resort offered tonally rich and well-written beauties but not, I'd argue, any major fireworks; they felt true without necessarily being surprising. One featured a sex doll; another a sex party. They didn't read as juvenile or tawdry, but you got the sense that Griffin had tons of narrative firepower and that these stories weren't quite up to his talents. You could get a glimpse in some of the stories—“Reshma,” in particular—of massive future potential, but that potential was hinted at, a match struck in moments rather than some book-length conflagration.
And now, with Oceanography, it's 100% clear. Jeremy Griffin is a writer of absolute power, and I say that as someone who desperately wishes not to write that. No one is more frustrated to write about this book's excellence than I. I love Jeremy, and have known him for 15 years; he's one of my close friends, and I'd go to war for him. We're also deeply, maniacally competitive, and it pains me to admit the power and beauty of his new book. How we know each other matters just a bit: we were peers at our MFA program, at Virginia Tech. We started in the fall of 2006, meaning that on that very windy morning in April 2007, when a young man shot and killed 32 people on campus before killing himself, we were absolutely green TAs, teaching classes a few buildings away while Norris Hall filled with the scent of gunpowder, the sounds of terror.
One of the things I've been waiting for as a reader has been for a piece of literature about public shootings that feels true—in fact, one that feels rather than thinks, period, and to everyone who wants to think and see and feel about public shootings in a new way I'd direct you to the shattering final story, "At the Bottom of Everything," in which survivors of the Conway High Massacre gather where their assailant, a year prior, had filmed his manifesto before heading to the school and, in several minutes, killing 26. (Griffin's story, entirely fictional, not only feels completely true, but if you now search for “Conway High Massacre,” you'll discover a young man, this past November, was arrested for planning a shooting at his own Conway High, which says less about Jeremy and more about the fallen world we've created.) "At the Bottom of Everything" is written in first person plural and works magically because of it, eschewing the sort of limiting details that'd bog the story into some character's personal event and opening it, instead, to a larger reckoning engaged in by a whole group, targeted for no reason. "Altogether we carry 5.8 pounds of titanium alloys in the form of cranial plates, bone screws, artificial knee caps, and spinal fusion cages," Griffin writes, before listing some of the group's 71 surgeries. The story in fact operates as a symphony of detail desperate to add up to something we can learn from, but the speakers realize it, noting that the shooter bawled as a sophomore when attempting to dissect a fetal pig, that he'd chosen to write about Mein Kampf for an English class, then admitting "in our minds [these details] now seem hopelessly laden with significance, like opportunities that only reveal themselves once you've missed them." Ultimately, the story crescendoes to the line "Could this be all that healing amounts to, outlasting whatever you thought was keeping you safe?"
And while the line comes at the book's end, it's a spotlight shining over the whole of this book. The simple gloss on it would have something to do with the end of innocence, a statement regarding a generic coming-of-age, but it's not that at all. We are, all of us, innocent of so much: we live in these gnarly meatsacks and presume the electricity'll stay on indefinitely. We trust the physical world we live in to make some sort of coherent sense (yes, the vertiginous political moment we find ourselves in challenges that, to a degree). That, to me, is what Jeremy Griffin's writing about here: how much innocence we always have and how we'll keep losing it. In this way, the stories feel, to me, enough to reduce one to tears. The young boy in "Robo Warrior," the book's second story, is innocently enough trying to use a public bathroom when a man in the next stall masturbates until "something lands on the floor next to your shoe, a small milky splat," and while the story's gross, the devastating part of it's that the boy has no frame of reference for the moment. He was thinking of toys, and the event breaks him open because he has no way to sort what just transpired.
In this way he's no different from Holt in "The Fence," several stories later, finding sustenance and succor in the house of a woman he couldn't have guessed would be able to offer him any, and who can't even see or completely understand what he's gone through. The boy in "Robo Warrior" isn't even a standard deviation away from Brianna Copeland, the lead in "Oceanography," who, on a family trip, comes to this understanding near her story's end: "maybe people want something to be afraid of. Otherwise, the whole notion of safety loses all meaning. Because what's more frightening, sharks in the water, or realizing once you've willed yourself into the ocean that the threat was just something you invented, and now here you are with not a goddamn thing to show for your fear?"
Jeremy Griffin's Oceanography lives right there, at the sudden realization that we're doomed by what we choose to fear, and that there's something after it as well. The boy in "Monsters" who charges classmates money in exchange for letting them kick him in the crotch? The man in "Retreat" who has a sudden, out-of-nowhere homosexual experience at a Men's Liberation camp? These stories are illuminations of how wrong we are, even after we've learned, time and again, how wrong we are. We fear the dissolution of civil society while checking our phones as we drive. We hope we'll be loved and paid attention to forever even while only half listening to our spouses. We fear some big work task before us without considering that it won't be our success or failure at that task, but the freaky guy who does something untoward or frightening, that'll dictate the texture of that day. All of us know all of this and forget it, all the time, directing our attention and fear elsewhere. Jeremy Griffin's Oceanography is a subtle, achingly graceful collection that somehow becomes a pillowy thunderclap of a reminder to look larger. To see and be aware of more. To be generous with each other at all times and, ultimately, at all costs. It's a fantastic book, and Jeremy Griffin's among the very best going.