Achieving Normalcy

Christmas Critics
(Hippopx)

I’m tempted to say Robert Macfarlane is one of my favorite nature writers, but that’s not quite right. He’s one of my favorite writers, period, and nature simply happens to be his subject. But that’s still not quite right. Nature, for Macfarlane, is less like a garden and more like a library. He goes to some landscape and peels back the layers of the earth like the pages of a book, reading the secret history written there.

Underland (W. W. Norton, $17.95, 496 pp.) ranks among his best work. He visits several different subterranean environments throughout the European continent, delving into the deep history of humanity’s past. In the British countryside, he visits a gravesite some six thousand years old. There, a mother and her child, both dead in childbirth, were laid to rest. The mother’s arm is outstretched to cradle the child, and the wing of a swan is placed on the ground. The child is laid there, upon the wing, within the mother’s grasp. Such ancient grief, in Macfarlane’s telling, is deeply moving. Elsewhere, he visits mithraea in the Balkans, shrines built in caves by Roman soldiers in honor of the god Mithras, a strange figure who emerged throughout the empire at the same time that the Church was beginning to form. And in a passage that I, very much a claustrophobe, found terrifying, he descends beneath the surface of Paris to explore the catacombs there. When he crawls through a narrow tunnel and almost gets stuck, I nearly passed out from vicarious fear. Thank goodness Macfarlane writes about such harrowing journeys, so I can read about them from the comfort of my own home.

Who would ever need instruction on how to be normal? And why would anyone exert effort to reach such a state?

Self-help books, as a genre, lay out the tantalizing possibility of elevating oneself above the average. Read this book and you’ll be fabulously wealthy; read that one and you’ll grow four inches taller overnight and cancel your credit card debt. Achieving mere normalcy, such books suggest, takes no effort at all. It is a state to be overcome. How to Be Normal (Belt, $12, 208 pp.) by Phil Christman toys with this idea in its very title. Who would ever need instruction on how to be normal? And why would anyone exert effort to reach such a state? How to Be Normal is not, strictly speaking, a self-help book. It is a book of essays that, as Christman writes, “examine things that have an air of banality, normativity, or averageness about them.” Topics include masculinity, whiteness, the Midwest, religion, and marriage. In Christman’s hands, these seemingly average topics reveal themselves to be full of strangeness and hidden assumptions. In the essay on masculinity, he avoids the usual traps of condemnation or blind worship to arrive at something more pointed and personal. “Masculinity is an abstract rage to protect,” he writes. “I mean precisely the activities that stem from a fear that simple usefulness is not enough: that one must train and prepare for eventualities one has no reason to anticipate, must keep one’s dwelling and grooming spartan in case of emergencies, must undertake defensive projects that have no connection to the actual day-to-day flourishing of the people one loves.” This tension between abstract ideals and the particular people they’re supposed to serve forms the basis for Christman’s experience of his own masculinity. You see this tension elsewhere, as in the essay on Christman’s native Midwest. That seemingly bland region, forever in tension between the bustling coasts, exists as a kind of sociocultural nexus. Vast, unwieldy forces have passed through the Midwest: land grants, grain transports. What looks like rigidity is the result of huge resources being brought to bear upon the land. Scratch the surface, even just a little, and you’ll see the circuitry whirring away.

As a child, my father raised me and my brother right in the ways of the Lord. By that I mean he sat us down every Saturday afternoon and introduced us to the classics of science fiction: Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This was our legacy and our heritage. Science fiction, as a genre, allows you to get right to the beating heart of issues that might otherwise remain abstract. Issues like technology and social unrest, but also issues of faith, belief, and how our increasingly futuristic world can make people behave so primitively. One of the fruitful science-fiction stories for such discussion is Alien, the original 1979 movie directed by Ridley Scott, as well as its many sequels. Sarah Welch-Larson dives deep into these questions in Becoming Alien (Cascade Books, $22, 144 pp.), a wide-ranging yet compact look at all six films in the series, from the original to Alien: Covenant (2017). Welch-Larson’s guidepost for the study is the work of Catherine Keller, an idiosyncratic theologian who looks at the “deeps” from which God created the world, as recounted in the first chapters of Genesis. More than good and evil, Keller’s work centers around what she calls “discreation,” the process by which evil undoes the act of creation. In Becoming Alien, the struggle between the alien and the various forces that try to harness its awesome power is a story of discreation—of the chaos that can arise out of creation. Reading the book transported me back to those youthful Saturday afternoons, when watching movies would lead to long-winded discussions about the nature of the universe.

Over the past few years, Jesse McCarthy has become one of my favorite new writers. Anytime I see his byline in a magazine or online, I turn and/or click there immediately. Thankfully, a collection of some of his strongest pieces is now available. Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? (W. W. Norton, $17.95, 352 pp.) gathers pieces old and new into a single coherent volume, one that traces the trajectory of McCarthy’s own life along with the wider topics of race, art, and culture. An African American man who spent much of his adolescence in France, McCarthy has seen up close the ways that identity, often held to be a static category, can bend and warp depending on one’s context. A look at trap music, the offshoot of hip-hip that originated in the South before taking over the genre, locates its origins in the funeral marches of New Orleans, musicians parading through the streets with horns and a bass drum in a communal act of mourning.

Published in the December 2022 issue: 

Adam Fleming Petty is the author of a novella, Followers. His essays have appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Vulture, and other outlets. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

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