One gets the feeling that the essays contained in Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book of essays, were conceived and composed in the dark. It’s certainly not a notion D’Ambrosio himself does much to dispel. In the book’s preface he writes: “I thank God for certain kinds of failure. New silences layer over the old. I hope this brief superficial essay hasn’t simply circled around a peculiar woundedness.” The essay may be brief, but it’s nowhere near superficial, and it’s that peculiar woundedness that provides these essays’ most striking qualities. It’s in the silences laying over each other, in the darknesses that these essays inhabit, that D’Ambrosio’s light shines brightest.
In the preface he writes that he hopes with these essays to “capture the conflicted mind in motion,” and in the rough texture of that haunted mind we find the world itself, the world that isn’t talked about but is. We encounter something like “the first condition of prayer,” no longer estranged but instead gathered up into the fabric of life, even though the texture of that fabric is often anything but pleasant to the touch.
Estrangement is a through-line flowing through Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book of essays. It’s the estrangement of a young man growing up in a Seattle pre-grunge, pre-cultural relevance, in a city west of west, in a family of nine, under the watch of a father he describes as “monstrous.” It’s the estrangement of a person enmeshed in a culture that runs on noise pollution. What D’Ambrosio’s after is silence. It’s in silence, he suggests, that speech begins, and where estrangement ends.
The kind of estrangement that exists in these essays is not simply of the kind endured by the characters of, say, Raymond Carver’s stories. For D’Ambrosio, it’s located in the very belly of the way language functions in our culture, it’s what happens when language is carved out of and codified by a culture of noisy empiricism. In “Casting Stones,” an essay that unpacks (among other things) the case of a school teacher on trial for having a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old, he wonders what gets lost in the parade of experts, “when laypeople concede the control of words to clinicians, scientists, lawyers, etc., which is, scilicet, the rich, supple instrumentation of language that makes it an encounter with reality”.
D’Ambrosio writes that lawyers, et al., use “fixed language… doing so, by excluding, again and again notions that were not naturally a part of their descriptive vocabulary, like love.” He’s less interested in whether or not the teacher is innocent than he is in the tendency of so-called experts to simplify language in service of answers, rather than seeking to ask the right questions. Questions, like silence, for D’Ambrosio, are the substance of existence. Answers don’t create dialogue, they prevent it. He presents himself as a non-expert, does not afford himself the luxury of systemic knowledge-seeking, in favor of a full on encounter with language itself, expansive language, language which outlasts science: “In the case of King Lear,” he writes, “the language that lets us see his magnificent ruin has outlasted Newtonian optics.”
This is not luddism. Rather, it’s a full-on openness to the rich and complicated world in which we live. He quotes the theologian Paul Tillich: “‘An exclusive method applied to everything closes many ways of approach and impoverishes our vision of reality”. D’Ambrosio: “You never want to forget that life comes first; and an ascendant methodology foreign to the subject in the first place, shouldn’t stand in the way of that encounter.” D’Ambrosio wants us to see people as people, not things. Life as life, in all its expertise-resisting unsystematicness. And that’s borne out throughout Loitering. This is a book about waiting, waiting around to see what gets left out of the stories we tell ourselves.
Writing about poetry, he states that “Answers are as transient and foolish as we are…. if you’re a poet and you’re going to pose questions, they’d better approach the unanswerable.” The unanswerable is what the poet is after, or rather, in this case, what the essayist is after.
It is not, though, as if D’Ambrosio makes no assertions. That much should be clear by now, and occasionally his self-deprecating method—and his method of questioning method itself—seems like artifice. For a writer coming out of the realist tradition like D’Ambrosio, it can be hard to keep from slipping into veins of low grade despair that Carver, Ford, and others have already stripped to the bone. Yet D’Ambrosio’s self-deprecation is undergirded by a ragged maximalism and an often messy style that clears the way for him to write with a certainty and clarity that bristles. The reader may feel as if, rather than reading an essay, she has stumbled into a patch of razor-wire blackberry bushes. If D’Ambrosio asks unanswerable questions, he is at least sure of what he is unsure of. It’s a hard place to inhabit—certainty in uncertainty—but D’Ambrosio lives there in these essays, and we’re better off for it.
In “Salinger and Sobs,” an essay that reads the work of that hermitic writer through the lens of D’Ambrosio’s two brothers’ suicides (one successful, one not), he locates the “un-” construction in Salinger’s work as one which “always wears a mask, sneaky and meaning the opposite of what it states,” yet realizes that he’s used the same construction five times in his essay’s second paragraph. D’Ambrosio leaves it in, and sets the claim next to the contradiction.
Throughout the book one gets the sense of D’Ambrosio’s world as being a haunted place, a world where hell seeps through every crack. There is something burning in between the commas, something burning in the space between each lengthy paragraph he sets on the page. Yet there is something sacramental in the hellish: in a picture of a man falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11 he finds “a necessary silence,” a “place to begin, the only place” in the cultural noise that followed those attacks.
At other moments he moves like a spectral presence throughout his own work. In “Winning,” which details the broken lives of lonely gamblers in a hole-in-the-wall bar in Chicago, he’s a wraith drinking alongside the men he describes, while working a job “the historical imperative of which had vanished,” and one worries that he’s about to veer off into a sentimentalized darkness. Yet he counters with this gut-punch of a statement: “To be history in America doesn’t mean to be recorded, noted, added to the narrative, but precisely the opposite, to be gone, banished, left behind. To be history is to be cut from the story.”
It’s in just that history—or, if you like, unhistory—that D’Ambrosio’s interested. He wants the cuttings, the leftovers, the said in the unsaid, and, in the process, says exactly what we need to hear.
About the reviewer:
Nathan Knapp’s writing has appeared in Frequencies, The McNeese Review, Parcel, Specter Magazine, elimae, and other publications. He edits The Collapsar and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.