Review by Michael Mungiello
Pub Date: 06/04/19
Page Count: 128 pages
There are two stories in Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9-Fog: the story, and the story of the story. The latter is that Scanlan finds the diary of an 86-year-old woman at a public estate auction; she buys it and spends years rearranging this old lady’s words until she’s turned them into art. The story inside the diary is what remains: the daily dozen to two dozen words about the weather, a loved one’s health (“not bit good” or “real good”), sometimes a phrase about meals or animals (“fine snow rabbit got away”). For all I know, both stories are pure fiction, but for the sake of praising Scanlan, let’s say we can trust her, and the source diary was real.
Stylistically, Scanlan’s sentences are as clipped, elliptical, and lyrical as those in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. And I do consider them Scanlan’s sentences, though not hers alone. Some credit for the concision goes to the diarist herself. In her introduction, Scanlan tells us that the source text was written in a diary with tight margins, which forced the owner to boil down her life to what could fit, writing in a “cramped hand.” I couldn’t help but think of Robert Walser, who after a great deal of psychological duress could only write in a scrawl so small you needed a microscope to read it.
Indeed, it sometimes takes a rude shock to reduce our reflections to what’s essential. Madness, war, a diagnosis, age. Our lives upend and we feel the need to record what “really matters” so we can pass down concise wisdom. But so often meditations on life’s brevity stink of effortful preening, a writer hot in the armpits with self-consciousness and straining toward profundity. “Realized love is meaning of life.” “Saw God, is good.” Bless her, our mystery diarist didn’t trudge into treacle like that; or if she did, Scanlan doesn’t let on. Aug 9-Fog is brimming with the authentic boredom of actual life: “That puzzle a humdinger….D. frying chicken.” “Profound” bromides written for some imagined future audience, for “eternity”? That’s just death talk, an unfortunate consequence of the fact that when people realize life is precious, they embrace preciousness.
Of course, there are writers who realize the heart of life is found in the ephemeral details of daily survival, accumulating into an identity. Scanlan is one of these writers, harvesting and arranging banalities like a cornucopia on the Thanksgiving table. There’s an underlying gratitude throughout Aug 9-Fog: the diarist’s gratitude for D. and snow (“Big snow flakes like little parasols upside down”), and Scanlan’s gratitude for the accident of the diary’s acquisition. Like most sincere expressions of thanks, this novel is notable for its straight-shooting anti-sentimentality. The writing celebrates life without becoming self-indulgent; for all its praise of dismissable minutiae, Aug 9-Fog remains disciplined, and never enumerates life’s small pleasures in the hopes of fluffing up the page-count. It feels like Wittgenstein edited Knausgaard.
We read like we live: next to death. When you write, you’re asking someone to spend something finite on something fake—so it’s got to be good. Aug 9-Fog is not only good, but it fulfills fiction’s only moral obligation: to bring us as close to death as possible. Scanlan finds a reflection of herself in this anonymous diarist. She was a writer who was here, a real-life memento mori. In her introduction, Scanlan tells us, “I have possessed this work so thoroughly that the diarist has ceased to be an entirely unique, autonomous other to me. I don’t picture her. I am her. The diary has become something like kin—a relation who is also me, myself.” The reader shares in Scanlan’s symbiosis; we’re also dead and making sense of what the dead leave behind.
Aug 9-Fog is brilliant and ordinary, rife with life’s ordinary miracles and ordinary disasters, the sort of book you need to reread and want to memorize—a morsel you can savor forever, like how you wish life could be.
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.