At the Edge of the Solid World
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Daniel Davis Wood writes about At the Edge of the Solid World from Brio Books.
Extremis has an awful talent for self-perpetuation. Extreme events beget extreme responses in those who endure them: extreme emotions, states of mind, and behaviour. But there’s often a conspicuous bipolarity to those responses — placidity, sometimes willed, at one extremity; frantic, inchoate distress at the other — and there’s a tendency for writers of extremis to gravitate towards a single pole and shy away from the alternative.
Consider, for instance, the elegiac verses of Ben Jonson alongside the later essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both Jonson and Emerson suffered much the same extreme experience. Both, in middle age, lost a beloved son to illness. Jonson’s son contracted the plague and died, aged seven, in 1603. Emerson’s succumbed to scarlet fever, aged five, in 1842. But that’s where the similarities end, as each man’s response to his calamity was very different to the other’s. Jonson purposefully stoked his grief, kept it raw, kept it burning, and immediately drew on it to write an excoriating threnody entitled ‘On My First Sonne.’ Crying out for the power to reverse the flow of time, or else to be granted death of his own, he all but wailed: “O, could I loose all father now! For why / Will man lament the state he should envie? / To have so soone scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage, / And, if no other miserie, yet age?” Emerson, however, let six months lapse before he wrote a single word about his son, and then, fully two years after the fact, in his essay ‘Experience,’ he surveyed his grief from a distance, with an attitude so detached from its origins as to be almost cynical:
People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say. There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. … In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. … [S]ome thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar.
In the course of writing my new novel, At the Edge of the Solid World, I didn’t draw on either Jonson’s poems or Emerson’s essays, but I took it as a fortuitous sign when their work found its way to me while I focused on revisions. Like ‘Experience’ and ‘On My First Sonne,’ the novel is narrated by a father in extremis, grieving the loss of a child, in his case a newborn daughter. The narrator is, in a sense, abandoned to negotiate a new settlement between a heart as ravaged as Jonson’s — as afflicted by the “keen injustice” of his devastation — and daily life in a wider world that regards his pain from an Emersonian remove.
In fact, as I continued to hone and polish the novel, I found myself amid other, similarly bipolar responses to the extremis I hoped to explore. There was Ariel Levy’s serene account of a miscarriage suffered in isolation. There was Aleksandar Hemon’s anxious record of losing his infant daughter to a brain tumour. There was Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, about a parent’s primal urge to protect and defend a vulnerable child, and there was its dark twin, Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, a coolly malicious novella about the urge to lash out, to maim, when a soul in extremis rages against a reality that won’t accommodate it. There was Jessie Greengrass’ Sight, in which an array of potential futures arise from the conception of a child, and Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow, in which the death of a child plunges a parent into a continual present, a state of “arrested time.” Then, too, there were a couple of other kindred spirits who spoke to the essence of what I hoped my novel would do — although, in retrospect, both of them strike me as improbable inspirations.
The first kindred spirit was Joe Biden, of all people, who I happened to hear discussing the death of his adult son, Beau. Despite his insistence that he wanted to speak more about “redemption” than about grief, Biden spoke eloquently on the double-bind of his privileged bereavement. On the one hand, he confessed, he wanted to behave “selfishly, as a dad”: he wanted to speak of his son at length, in detail, reverentially, adoringly, almost unendingly, as if by words he could bring Beau to life again. On the other hand, he added, he couldn’t speak like this in good conscience because he knew — was perpetually aware — that his pain was pale by comparison to the pain of others who have suffered similar losses while lacking his family’s resources. “There are so many people, this very morning, that got up suffering much greater loss than I had, without any of the help I had,” he said, “and they put one foot in front of the other and they do it every day. … I just think to myself: All those people.”
The second kindred spirit was the musician Nick Cave, who spoke disarmingly about the bodily experience of continued existence after the accidental death of his teenage son, Arthur, several years ago. In Andrew Dominik’s documentary film One More Time With Feeling, which follows Cave’s return to creative work in the throes of bereavement, Cave had this to say of the rupture in his life and sense of self:
Most of us don’t want to change. [We only want] modifications on the original model. … But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that we just change from one day to the next? We change from the known person to an unknown person, so that when you look at yourself in the mirror — you recognise [the physical features of] the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person. When you go outside, the world is the same, but now you are a different person, and you have to re-negotiate your position in the world.
These, then, are the elements I tried to burnish as I settled into the real writing on At the Edge of the Solid World. I wanted to amplify Biden’s logorrhoea, his ceaseless speech aimed ineffectually at the restitution of an absent body. And I wanted to incorporate his self-diminishment as a countervailing force to his excesses, his feeling that his private pain is a gross indulgence in view of other people’s. I also wanted to elaborate on Cave’s description of depersonalisation, his corporeal sensation of having become a new creature, unknown even to himself. And I wanted to register, in a palpable way, his sensation of profound irreality upon his return to the world, of dwelling in a vacuum of solitude in a space that feels like an alien realm. As I embarked on revisions, I realised that my challenge was to bring coherence to these polarised ways of being. How could the stasis of alienation be given a voice in breathless verbosity? How could the decoupling of identity and body be observed without solipsism — in fact, with a gaze directed away from the self?
I realise, in writing all this, that I’ve said not a thing about research as preparation for writing. I did a lot by chance, and a little with effort, but none that informed the essence of At the Edge of the Solid World so much as a distortion of experience. Yet I’m not altogether convinced that research should be a preparatory activity, necessarily. I’m struck, instead, by how aptly the word resonates with revision. Re-search: to search anew, retrospectively? Re-vision: to look again at a thing presumed to be known, to conceive of it afresh from an unfamiliar vantage point? No, these aren’t really the etymological underpinnings of those words, but in the process of writing I like to pretend they are. When I arrive at the end of something I’ve dragged towards complete, I try to look at it with a reader’s unaccustomed vision, to adjust it to greater effect — and, in part, I revise by scouring the landscape of literature for writers who have reported back from the regions I hope to traverse. Not to ape or mimic, but to sound the truth of my words against the testimonies of others — and all the more so when writing a book like At the Edge of the Solid World. Extremis, after all, is a profoundly alienating phenomenon. When it pushes you into isolation at one of two poles, you want to be sure you’re not left stranded at the far end of the experience all alone.