» Book Review

The Shrapnel of Being

Reading Life by Chris Arthur
Negative Capability Press, 2017
Paperback, 202 pages, $15.95


Cover of Reading Life by Chris Arthur.


Chris Arthur, a native of Ulster, Ireland and a long-time resident of Wales and Scotland, happens to be one of the prominent authors of long-form, meditative essays published in America. All but one of his books have appeared with a US publisher, and he makes frequent appearances in Best American Essays as well as a variety of US literary journals. Reading Life, his sixth collection, declares again a kind of trans-border citizenship through his lifelong residence in texts and the literary imagination. It offers his most direct commentary on the form of the essay itself.


“Perhaps no essayist,” he muses, “is worthy of that name unless he or she succeeds in creating objects which do not resemble their usual descriptors but are instead depicted in that elemental rawness which shows how little, in the ordinary run of things, we allow them to resemble what they in fact appear to be.” The sequence of negatives and reversals in the sentence indicate the complexity of the task: truth is, of course, elusive; evidence is illusive; the essay, with its epigrammatic etymology of provisionality and its seventeenth-century pedigree, must somehow get beyond these matters and uncover the bones.


Writing instructors often coach students in the practices that lead to a “writing life,” and Arthur’s title hints at a kind of companion practice, how to establish a life as a reader. In this vein, he re-examines texts acquired in his youth, such as novelist Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, “a piece of literary flotsam picked up on one of the many occasions when I was beachcombing in bookshops in my late teens.” On the occasion of his ten-year-old daughter being assigned to read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, he wonders whether the novel’s gruesomeness might be at best a “curious choice” or “unsuitable” for children that age and decides to re-read the novel alongside her to consider the question carefully.


But these sorts of reflections—living with and re-living familiar texts—are just one of Arthur’s intentions in Reading Life. In “reading” the objects of the world around us, Arthur offers a kind of enactment and commentary regarding the essayist’s purpose. “Essays deal in the shrapnel of being,” he writes, “turning over now one piece, now another, carefully running the fingers of their prose along the edges, testing for sharpness, looking for hints of connection, feeling for the cut-off remnants of joins, trying to reconstruct a sense of setting, context, contiguity, extrapolating from the minuscule moments and objects that create a life reminders of the massive milieu in which they and it are embedded.” The extended metaphor—stunning in its disruptive mashup of violence and contemplation—exemplifies Arthur’s method. He favors complex and suspended syntax; he crafts intricate details that subtly interconnect.


Arthur’s essays have always worked by way of fragments, assembling mosaics or braiding multiple narratives. His style lies in the scope of these assemblages and the patient, measured pacing with which he brings the pieces together and an unseen pattern emerges. Sometimes those fragments are literally objects—a whale’s tooth, for example, that Arthur subjects to close examination and free association, linking the memory of his childhood visits to the dentist who gave him the small artifact to consideration of the unbroken texts of DNA, “a paired line of antecedents going back some 60 million years to the land animals whales once were … [leading] finally to the same destination: that moment of naked singularity, the great beginning, the point at which there was something rather than nothing.” (This was one of my favorites in the book, recalling in some ways “Miracles” from his 2005 Irish Haiku, in which the fossilized bone from a whale’s ear resonates with connection to cosmic unity and the disunity of religiopolitical violence in Northern Ireland.)


Arthur’s omnivorous attention “reads” moments from literary history—a passage in the Goncourt brothers’ Journal containing an image of child prostitution in nineteenth-century France; a few degrees of separation regarding Seamus Heaney and his famous Bog Bodies poems—and from personal experience—leading a group of writing students out into the snow on a quest for found objects as writing prompts; “listening” to the histories associated with three walking sticks Arthur inherited. Through these readings, the richness he gleans includes delight in language itself (acquiring new words like “sett” and “clough”), companionship in shared meaning (“one of the things I’ve always liked about second-hand books is the way they hold the spoor of other readers and how, following their tracks, a sense of almost tribal complicity can be kindled”), the sudden shock or surprise of entering an alternate point of view (“why did this glimpse of child prostitution in nineteenth-century France strike me so forcefully that it felt—still feels—as if it left a splinter?”). Such “splinters” stay a long while with the reader, too—that’s part of Arthur’s power as prose writer, to deliver images, or facts, or anecdotes that work their barbed way more deeply in.


Reading Life is distinguished from his previous books in its deliberate commentary on form and theory. Essayists often like to comment on the meandering, fragmentary, organic approach that seems fundamental to the form, and Arthur has done so before. But here he devotes more direct consideration to such matters. Instead of losing himself in the unfolding energy of the essays, more often Arthur remains a self-conscious, authoritative as well as authorial presence. It’s sometimes as if he’s holding a subject before his own and the reader’s gaze, while simultaneously commenting upon what gazing feels like and explaining how sight casts an upside-down image of the world on an imaginary screen on the back of the eye.


And so “Sonatina for Oboe and Bayonet (Reading All Quiet on the Western Front),” the piece in which Arthur and his daughter read two distinct editions (his a 1963 edition with a cover depicting the dead and dying, hers with “only…an artful image of a poppy”), the story of their reading widens to recount their discussion of what a bayonet actually is (a knife the size of an oboe, he explains at first) and to examine one from the World War I theater purchased long ago from a junk shop. Soon the essay also provides a close reading of its own movement, Arthur explicating for the reader the image he’s just drawn, laying out the layers of symbolism he perceives there, making what moments before were implicit, explicit. The prospect of his own daughter on the floor between the musical instrument she plays at school and the authentic German bayonet her father has brought for her to look at “makes a powerful cameo … freezing into a kind of icon of incongruity that’s at once symbolic and interrogative,” Arthur muses. “It symbolizes vividly the way in which our world is riven by the coexistence of opposites: gentleness and brutality; compassion and cruelty; beauty and ugliness; creativity and destruction; peace and war. These polarities can pull apart any equilibrium of meaning we try to lay between them. Their sudden alternations act like military rounds, pounding the semblance of order on which we build our lives.”


This, too, is vintage Chris Arthur. Calm and articulate, while pointing to the firing guns.


Elizabeth Dodd

Elizabeth Dodd is nonfiction editor at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments.  Her most recent book is Horizon’s Lens (University of Nebraska Press). She teaches creative writing and environmental literature at Kansas State University.