Truthful Uncertainty

Christmas Critics
A woman wearing a protective mask prays during a Mass in London, Dec. 12, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic (CNS photo/Marcin Mazur, courtesy Bishops' Conference of England and Wales).

It’s been three years of pandemic and we’re not really out of the wilderness yet. I may not Google my state’s Covid numbers anymore, but the virus still seems to stalk most gatherings. Visions of a once-hoped-for post-pandemic world have unraveled; we’re left with more of the same. Perhaps that’s why, on a perfectly still and sunny day, my skin will prickle with the sense that a pandemic-less path is nearby, running alongside us. Confronted with this parallel world, I feel not a yearning to return to normal, but rather a dissatisfaction that we’ve given up on trying to change. “We are not living an era of change but a change of era,” Pope Francis said—in 2015. Despite opportunities to chart new courses, we tend to stick with the old. For those of us who have walked in darkness, how do we open ourselves to Isaiah’s great light? In hard times, friends offered me books that inspired new ways of thinking. Through their loving suggestions, I now have three to offer you.

Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (Harper Perennial, $14.40, 400 pp.), set mostly in the first year of the pandemic, functions as a perfect antidote to works that force us to relive too literally those unsettling moments of 2020. Erdrich gives us a ghost story instead, whose protagonist is Tookie—self-described as on “the wrong side of the statistics”—who credits both her sense of oblivion and her resilience to a lucky-gened ancestor “who survived all of the Old World diseases that descended upon us.” After years in prison, she now sells books at an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, where in November 2019 she becomes haunted by the ghost of Flora, the store’s most annoying customer and a wannabe Indigene. As Tookie begins to investigate the book that killed Flora—literally, reading the book was fatal—the past begins to manifest itself. Flora soon proves to be one of many specters wandering in Covid’s diseased air. There’s more that haunts Tookie than she lets in, and other characters and places are revealed to be haunted as well. Through lockdown and George Floyd’s murder, things veer even more out of control.

There’s an understated brilliance in how the novel depicts the inexorable approach of a mental breakdown. Tookie’s time in prison includes a period she likens to “the blank pages in a diary,” loaded with meaning but unspeakable all the same. Over time, details emerge as Tookie tries to understand how to vanquish her ghost. Her coping mechanism in prison was “to read with a force that resembled insanity,” something that later aids her ability to read what Flora’s ghost wants. And as Flora becomes more plainly visible, so too does Tookie’s past: “I became aware of my thoughts. My brain began combing apart the strands of what had happened during the years of my incarceration.” Erdrich deftly plays the reader’s expectations of what’s real off what seems unreal: Is Tookie just losing her grip on sanity, or is the ghost the cause of the chaos? The Sentence masterfully asserts that it can be both.

Even as the novel tackles the pandemic and racial reckoning, it’s also full of love and humor. The eccentricities of life at a bookstore are on full display, and there are even book lists in the final pages. Erdrich herself appears in the narrative. And throughout, there’s appreciation for the range of things that offer to transform us, whether it be a confessional, a jingle dress, or, of course, a sentence.

In recent years, many people I admire have returned to the Psalms. This was often a search not for strength but for validation: we also feel loss, helplessness, anger. A welcome if non-canonical spin comes from the realm of science fiction: A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tordotcom, $20.99, 160 pp.) by Becky Chambers. In this solarpunk novella, a monk, Sibling Dex, is moved to change their vocation by the desire to hear cricket song, something that has practically gone extinct in the transition of human society away from industry and fossil fuels. While life as a Tea Monk (work that is simply understood as “listen to people, give tea”) offers Dex a chance to travel around the outer villages, brewing tea does not bring Dex closer to cricket song, prompting their quest into the wilderness. Along the way, Dex encounters a robot—Splendid Speckled Mosscap—on a quest of its own: finding out what human beings need. On their way to a remote hermitage, Dex and Mosscap take up philosophical conversations about robot consciousness, human nature, and purpose.

We’re invited to meet these moments with curiosity and care. A gentler world is possible.

The tale offers quiet assurance for those trying to make sense of undefined desires and anxieties. When questioned about their change in vocation or why they need to find this hermitage, Dex leans into truthful uncertainty: “I don’t know…. This is just something I need to do.” We witness the transformative benefits of small comforts when a woman who comes for tea sits down and visibly slumps her shoulders, and our narrator notes: “She’d always had the ability to relax them; she’d just needed permission to do so.” Ultimately, even a good and meaningful life doesn’t protect Dex from feeling that something is missing: “What is wrong with me that I can have everything I could ever want and have ever asked for and still wake up in the morning feeling like every day is a slog?” Like Mosscap trying to understand human behavior, we’re invited to meet these moments with curiosity and care. A gentler world is possible.

Perhaps as a way to acknowledge my personal sense of the disruptions of time, I finally returned to a book I had meant to revisit at the beginning of the pandemic: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, $16, 224 pp.), written in 2014. Much of the magic of my first reading back then was traceable to how many sources Biss draws from to interrogate the subject of immunity and vaccination: Dracula and Achilles, Sontag and Silent Spring, Voltaire and variolation. This time, I was struck by her deeper observations, the ones that endure across time and pandemics. Although Biss is in dialogue with a different pandemic (H1N1 in 2009) and a different kind of anti-vaxxer (other mothers), she is a keen observer of what informs our fears.

On the most fundamental level, that happens to be language. “Our understanding of immunity remains remarkably dependent on metaphor,” Biss writes—and many such metaphors can be unsettling. Consider the militaristic examples: a body that “fights,” is at “war,” or is on the “front lines” against invisible “enemies.” Our cells are like ourselves: they “eat,” “mature,” “read,” “instruct.” Biss cites research on the effects of using the body as a metaphor for a nation, which found that when two issues are metaphorically linked: manipulating a person’s attitude toward one (a harmful infection) affects how that person sees the other (immigration). The power of words helps show how the field of alternative medicine has been so successful peddling a range of “natural,” “holistic,” and “detoxifying” balms.

Drawing on Donna Haraway and Wendell Berry, Biss also warns against “troubling dualisms” that pit science against nature or truth against imagination. Such dualisms are not only unhelpful, but also override the possible and necessary continuity between them. We could instead learn to accept a “cyborg” world, she writes, a world “in which we’re all irrational rationalists.” Thus the relationship between ourselves and technology could be a collaborative one, whether the danger is perceived or real—be it a bike, a breast pump, or a vaccine. But I’d also like to suggest that, at a time when those open to vaccination and those opposed to it are basically estranged from each other, it’s a capacious way to sit with fear. Throughout these pages, Biss uses the vampire as a stand-in for a variety of anxieties, including disease, capitalism, and motherhood. “As a new mother I became fixated on [vampires] in part because they were a way for me to think about something else,” she writes. Yet as she reveals in an anecdote about the weeks following her son’s birth, the metaphor works not only as a vessel for her fears but a way to quell them, or to inoculate against them: a vampire cannot enter without permission.

Published in the December 2022 issue: 

Gabriella Wilke is the marketing and audience development director at Commonweal.

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