|Closing the Book: Travles in Life, Loss, and Literature
by Joelle Renstrom
|Pelekinesis Books, 2015
Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen
Joelle Renstrom’s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, does not try to explain to the reader how to lose a loved one. This is not a self-help book, at least not in the traditional sense. It is a travel memoir, a coming-of-age story, a tribute, a book of essays where the author wrestles with the fact that our world is not fair or easy. In each essay, Renstrom grapples with the early death of her beloved father, a well-respected political science professor, using the best tools at her disposal: books. She turns to literary works like Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, Camus’ The Stranger, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Obama’s Dreams From My Father, as guides in how to process this tragedy that has befallen her father, a good man by all accounts. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” Renstrom is searching for the right questions.
The authors and books she incorporates into her search for meaning are sometimes the centerpiece, the driving force of the essay, but other times they are part of the background. The essays don’t become homogenous, which would have been an easy pitfall for such a focused endeavor. Renstrom’s prose is smooth and lively and, despite the somber nature of her subject, I found myself rapidly reading through these essays. In addition to her internal turmoil and the books she is reading, she pays close attention to place. In every essay, the concrete details of her surroundings ground the reader as the author travels through time and space: her family home in Kalamazoo, an apartment in New York City, a classroom, her father’s office, Scandinavia, or even a supermarket.
The opening essay, “A Sort of Homecoming,” tells the straightforward story of Renstrom’s world-altering experience of discovering her father is sick, then terminal, then never coming back. “In a strange strangled voice [Mom] says, ‘It’s not pneumonia.’ This is the moment that divides my life into before and after.” Suddenly, human mortality is all that she can think of. DeLillo’s White Noise is a book whose characters are also preoccupied with death. In one of the most powerful scenes in this essay, after a harrowing event in the woods, Renstrom enters the supermarket, struggling to find normalcy in this “after” she has been thrust into. She wanders, like a character in DeLillo’s novel, through the grocery store:
The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating, trying to right the squeaking wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbone sinking, chests caving.
Most of us ignore death until we’re forced to face it. With Renstrom, like DeLillo’s characters, we go right up to it and survive, but not wholly and only for an indeterminate while longer.
Renstrom taught high school and her class makes an appearance in a few of the most formally interesting and imaginative essays. In “Letters to Ray Bradbury,” Renstrom introduces her students to the genre of science fiction through his work, and documents the opening of their minds. In this series of epistles she is raw with her father’s passing and credits Bradbury for helping her find a way through the normal routine of life, “A thousand times a day I dissolved into pieces and, with your help, a thousand times a day I attempted my own resurrection.” The format of this essay allows for an intimate conversation, though one-sided, with the only person she called a hero besides her father. It is also a vehicle for proving the positive impact ideas in science fiction can have on otherwise disengaged high school students. In “Fighting the Sunday Blues with Camus,” Renstrom has a conversation with Camus as well as her students. This essay reads a bit like a lesson plan in absurdism, which turns out to be a fun read. In “How I Spent My Free Will,” the author flexes her comparative literature muscle and continues her dialogue with Camus, folding in Kazuo Ishiguro’s alternate views:
Never Let Me Go trades blow philosophical blow with The Stranger. I picture Camus sitting on my right shoulder. “We’re all going to die some day,” he says, breezy as autumn. “It doesn’t matter if or how much we hurt.”
Ishiguro sits on my left shoulder. “Yes, we’re all going to die someday,” he says mildly. “Thus, how we hurt is the only thing that matters.”
These essays underline the importance of debate, a skill her father, a political science scholar, no doubt taught her. Done well, a creative argument can be a balm and an inspiration, as well as a successful form for an essay.
In some ways, this is a selfish book, just as death is selfish. Renstrom rarely mentions her other family members and does not try to assign emotions to their experiences. She focuses intently on her experience with anguish and loss, her relationship with her father. This creates a sort of tunnel vision for the reader, enveloping them in the desire to know the unknowable. Though there is a sense of closure in the final essay, “The Stars Are Not For Man,” it is one of learning to live without a loved one. It is not about how it gets easier, or everything happens for a reason, or any of the other well-meant but useless things people who are grieving are told. Rather, with the help of the imaginative minds she admires, Renstrom comes to a place where she can bear to live, be happy even, though she always misses her father, wherever he is.