Away From Understanding
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This?
The tolerance threshold is four pages. Read just the first four pages of Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? and you’ll know the terms on which to press forward. Those pages belong to a potent work of short prose entitled ‘Bones’. It’s not exactly a story, though it relates a narrative spanning a lifetime. It’s not exactly an essay, though it is informative, associative, and contemplative. It’s tough to read, describing events that are ghoulish and visceral and awfully sad, and yet its sentences have a delicacy of tone which alleviates the work as a whole, lightening the burden on the reader. So, then, what’s the implication of that title? Given that Young’s raw material is self-evidently hard to bear, the question “Can you tolerate this?” seems calculated to prompt readers to consider what makes it bearable. If the subject of ‘Bones’ tests one’s tolerance, Young’s style — her delivery of the material — does a lot of heavy lifting to raise one’s tolerance threshold. Four pages, that’s all it takes. Four pages, and you’ll see that the style inserts an extra word at the end of the title: the default answer to the question is “no”, but foreground Young’s way of approaching her subject and ask again — “Can you tolerate this now?” — and the answer evolves.
In ‘Bones’, Young describes the tragic life and death of a man she refers to only as “Harry”. She opens with a sentence perfectly designed to startle: “Harry’s first skeleton was the one he was born with.” His first skeleton? Who could have more than one? And how? “Harry”, we learn, was one of those exceptionally rare individuals born with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a genetic disorder that causes new bone to grow on the body whenever organs or tissues sustain injuries. “If Harry hurt himself — if he broke his leg or stubbed his toe — his body repaired itself by growing bone in the place where he had been hurt,” Young writes. “The only way his body knew how to heal was to harden, so afraid it seemed of leaving any part of him vulnerable.” The trajectory of Harry’s life is clear from the outset of ‘Bones’, and Young dutifully follows it where it leads:
Whenever Harry’s physicians cut the new skeleton away, it would grow back forcefully over the next few months, as if in a panic. Soon it bound him tightly. Bone covered his back like a cracking cocoon. It welded his upper arms to his breastbone so that his arms hovered magician-like in front of his body. Bone wrapped itself in layers around his skull. Delicate columns of bone, like stalactites, fused his head to his neck, forcing him to stare at the ground…
So few sentences, so many figurative turns of phrase: “as if in a panic”, “a cracking cocoon”, “hovered magician-like”, “delicate columns”, “stalactites”. In Young’s hands, these sorts of expressions aren’t just for decoration or prettifying. She uses them to kink the expected take on her chosen subjects; she forces her readers to look at strange things from angles that register the fact but not the feeling of strangeness, and to look at familiar things strangely despite their seeming normality. In ‘Bones’, these figurative phrases moderate the sensationalism of the life of Harry Eastlack. They temper its potential for excess, rescuing it from an easy plunge into carnivalesque exploitation. They also allow Young to insinuate her way into a foreign body, not quite imagining what it might have felt like to be Harry so much as imagining the feeling of having his form — his deformity — even though, on the surface, the only thing ‘Bones’ actually offers is a description of Harry’s appearance in a handful of photographs. There are no investigations here, no dramatic self-revelations. There are no arguments to advance, no theses to defend. In ‘Bones’ and throughout Can You Tolerate This?, Young turns her attention to a variety of peculiar subjects — zany, bizarre, disconcerting, traumatic, exotic — and then slicks their surfaces with words that respect their oddities while domesticating them, declining to treat them as material for melodrama.
“Eclectic” is probably the only way to describe Young’s literary background. Although she débuted in print with a collection of poems, Magnificent Moon, in 2012, she has been publishing her prose work on her idiosyncratic blog, eyelashroaming, since 2011. The title of the blog comes from a nickname given to Young by her brother (“Ashleigh” became “Eyelash”) and, in tandem with her work as an editor in her native New Zealand, she has blogged on a regular basis for the better part of the last decade. From time to time she publishes new poems on eyelashroaming, but most of her blog entries consist of life stories, philosophical ruminations, and snapshots of incidents or descriptions of people, including a few that have sown the seeds of longer pieces in Can You Tolerate This? And, true to the profile of its author, the book as a whole is similarly eclectic, bringing together twenty works of short prose on a wide range of topics — although the pre-eminence of ‘Bones’ announces an interest in a specific subject that sounds a bass note for the remainder of the collection.
Young’s favoured subject is bodily disfiguration, although not in a sordid sense. Often she explores this subject through accounts of bodies that are somehow inhospitable, bodies that refuse to accommodate the souls they encase. While ‘Bones’ shines a light on an especially extreme instance of disfigurement, Can You Tolerate This? also takes in comparatively milder ailments — a tumour, a tremor, an ache — and the foibles of living with them. In ‘Absolutely Flying’, Young details the double discomfort of having faulty eyesight and dealing with renegade contact lenses. In ‘Witches’ she dwells on the shameless nudity of the infant body, not as an observer but as one who speculatively experiences it, and in ‘Wolf Man’, she describes her struggles with excessive body hair, beginning with her father’s inability to look her in the eye because he is distracted by her moustache.
In other, longer pieces, the disfiguration isn’t visibly written on the body but is nevertheless experienced as a bodily sensation. In ‘The Te Kūiti Underground’, a feeling of outsiderness, of not belonging to a place, torques the body and distorts its occupation of space. In ‘Big Red’, a sense of personal identity, of the continuity and integrity of selfhood, is punctured by the loss of an item of clothing worn on the body and then stripped away. Elsewhere, Young describes a sensation of physical vulnerability by putting a literally corporeal spin on the clichéd notion that to be vulnerable is to be invisible: “I’ve found that silence [in the face of predators] seems only to make you transparent: it lets them see right through to your weakness.” A hint of similar disfiguration even colours the title of the book. Despite its apparent address to the reader, “Can you tolerate this?” is the question put to Young by her chiropractor as he kneads her vertebrae and tests her body’s capacity for distortion.
But then — and this is what gives the book a tint of additional strangeness — Young explicitly conceives of her own words as tools of disfiguration; when she sets out to write, she suggests, she inevitably defaces what she writes about. Concluding an episode in which she asks her brother if she can write about him, she laments that she ended the discussion without realising “that would be one of the last times I would see JP just as he was: my brother, unwritten.” Later, after she tries to write about her parents in the belief “that simply describing these people, especially at those times when they were most mysterious to me, would show their faces to me more clearly and bring me closer to them”, she realises that when she writes about her loved ones, she is writing about fictional people. “Maybe,” she says, “in a cruel way, I could now think and write about them as characters, could detach myself and write things that were not truly my own.” But, of course, this process of detachment involves a compromise on her initial aims — a movement, as she puts it, “away from understanding” her subjects and towards creating prose sketches that are as mimetic of real life as the jumbles of Picasso, the smears of Francis Bacon.
What warped territory have we strayed into here? A writer in search of clarity ends up losing sight of her subjects, inescapably bending them out of shape with her words. So, to liberate herself from fidelity to the real, she writes about her subjects in ways that present them as other than she knows them to be, forfeiting the greater intimacy she sought when she began. This isn’t to say that Young adopts the timeworn postmodern strategy of simply acknowledging her fictionalisations, playfully or otherwise. It’s to say that she tries to proceed more or less as a realist, albeit one who knows full well that her tools and methods create small realities of their own rather than reflecting the one that spurs her to write.
In ‘Black Dog Book’, when she tries to account for her mother’s overpowering love for a dachshund the family acquired when the author was eleven, Young ends up caricaturing her own memories in order to wilfully distort the picture, to ridicule her mother for the disproportionate affection she gave a pet that has been dead for decades now. In ‘On Breathing’, she imagines herself imagining an ex-boyfriend seeing her on the street from the window of a bus and in turn imagining that he can hear her breathing, a disorienting hall-of-mirrors exercise that forms part of a bizarrely sober-minded attempt to berate herself for breathing so heavily when she is riding her bicycle. In the title essay, which ends with a punch to the gut, Young orchestrates a single sentence which simultaneously discloses her awareness of a lie she has been told by a male acquaintance and also misleads the reader by suggesting that she has knowledge of the man which she knows she doesn’t possess. In ‘On Any Walk’, she brings the exhausted bodies of a group of hikers into contact with physical manifestations of their alternate selves, the selves who didn’t trek so far but decided to stop for a rest, and she concludes ‘Bikram’s Knee’ by actually describing what she would describe, hypothetically, “[i]f this [story] were fiction”. Distortion, disfiguration: sometimes plain to see, sometimes so subtle that it requires careful re-reading to pinpoint the sleight of hand, the deliberately defective word, the foreign object in the smooth unfurling of thought. All that really remains, rather than any worldly truths conveyed, are Young’s words and the things they conjure: words that finally swallow up the subjects they are intended to give substance to, encasing them like the outer skeleton of Harry Eastlack.
There are a couple of places where the engine sputters and Can You Tolerate This? slips into a form closer to plain reportage. ‘Katherine Would Approve’ finds Young working at the Katherine Mansfield House in Wellington, New Zealand, and pokes fun at popular misappropriations of Mansfield’s legacy. ‘Unveiling’ shifts the action to the town of Feilding, north of Wellington, where Young and a friend visit a marae, “a sacred meeting place for Māori”, to observe a traditional funeral. Neither of these pieces has much to offer beyond the inherent interest of their subjects. It may be the case that they are both aimed at readers more familiar with the cultural subtleties of New Zealand than many outsiders are likely to be. It may simply be that they don’t quite earn their length, both coming in above the average of seven or eight pages, or it may be that they are the two pieces in which Young herself is least present, relegated to the role of observer and squeezed into the margins of other people’s affairs. Can You Tolerate This? is at its best when the author’s words allow for an oblique glimpse of the persona that has chosen them, when her descriptions of things are not impartial but throw light on the sensibility that fuels them.
In addition to ‘Bones’, several pieces stand out as exemplars of literary craft in this strange form of writing. ‘Window Seat’ depicts Young in a situation familiar to many, seated on a plane and trying to read a book while woman beside her insists on chatting. But the familiar quickly becomes unfamiliar as the woman tells Young about her life, one improbable story after another, and speaks in a way that seems to command and reshape the flow of time. As the woman goes on and on, Young allows herself to fade out into a sort of politely credulous cipher: lethargic, virtually silent, and determined “to stay open for as long as I could.” The piece ends with a sting that is also a moment of grace, once again owing to the style applied to this odd scenario — a style that matches plainspokenness with generosity and relies on figurative phrasing for emotional expression, rather than action or outright confession. Elsewhere, in ‘She Cannot Work’ and ‘On Going Away’, Young affects an eerie calm in situations of acute distress. Both of these pieces are concerned with a romantic relationship in decline, and specifically the bodily contortions involved in sharing a space with another person who has become intolerable. ‘She Cannot Work’ depicts a young woman’s rage at having to remove herself from the presence of her lover in order to focus on the work that is important to her. ‘On Going Away’ depicts the abrupt end of a relationship in the aftermath of an argument. Both of these pieces abandon the first-person voice that otherwise prevails throughout the book — they opt for the close third and the second-person, respectively — and both end with a sting that rivals the final lines of ‘Window Seat’.
Best of all are two pieces in which bodily disfiguration takes the form of renunciation, withdrawal, absence: the use of the body as a weapon to disfigure the space that it once inhabited. In ‘Sea of Trees’, Young ruminates on the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori — the tendency for young people to shut themselves into their bedrooms or flats “for six months or more, sometimes years, sometimes decades” — and she discovers the surprising story of a hikikomori on Stewart Island, at the southernmost end of New Zealand. In ‘Anemone’, easily the most impressive work in Can You Tolerate This?, Young finds herself once again on a plane, this time en route to London, as she prepares to comfort her grieving brother in the days after the suicide of his wife. What could have been maudlin or trite becomes something else altogether as Young dovetails her own essay with an essay by the physicist Alan Lightman. Suddenly, ‘Anemone’ is not quite about suicide. It is about the ongoingness of one’s own life when one is aware that another life has been extinguished, the sense of being aware of time “continuing to continue”. It is about facing up to a suicide while also wrestling with Lightman’s optimistic suggestion that “there is something majestic in the brevity of our lives”, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, it is about trying to write something that honours this platitude while recoiling at its saccharine wording. And it is, as ever, about bodily disfiguration, in this case the disfiguration wrought on the loved ones of the dead woman: Young’s brother confesses that he feels as if, in suddenly being made a widower, he has become a sea anemone, “responding only to the environment around him in each moment” and “triggered by the slightest touch.”
It is sometimes said that we’re living in the golden age of the personal essay, or at least in the afterglow of the golden age. We have the self-exploratory, self-excoriating memoirs-in-fragments of Leslie Jameson and Durga Chew-Bose. We have the theory-inflected life writing of Kate Zambreno and Mark Greif, and the searching, existential deliberations of Emilie Pine and Sarah Manguso. We also have the more pointed, overtly political work of Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit. We have no shortage of writers who present themselves as provocateurs, who seek to bend and reshape the framework of dominant cultural narratives, who have been hailed as giving voice to the concerns of their generation. Ashleigh Young is not one of these writers. Hers is a tranquil voice, not faint or faltering but certainly hushed. She is a miniaturist, drawn to small subjects, or the tiniest ripples caused by larger subjects, and concerned with the fine-grained suggestions of the words she applies to them. Curious, unassuming, and above all humane, she is a writer who seems to wear the label timidly, owning it only to the extent that she can write her doubts about her work into the work itself. It would be a step too far to say that all of this makes Young a writer of revolutionary innovation. Still, by casting aside the idea that the task of an essay is to clarify something, to bring about an understanding, she removes herself from the current in-crowd and speaks in a way that poses a quiet challenge to the confident authority of her peers.