Imagine A Death by Janice Lee
(Texas Review Press, Evans, TX, 2021)
I was not going to ignore this book, not after having read Janice Lee’s prior book Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015) which identified her to me as a prose stylist to follow. In Imagine A Death, the first thing you can’t help but notice are long sentences and long paragraphs. Sometimes an entire paragraph is a single sentence. Form=content then as the form contributes to a sense of breathlessness. That is, somehow the reader finds herself holding in her breath until a period allows her to inhale again. (Blurber Lydia Yuknavitch says if she could swim in Janice Lee’s language she’d “never come out” and I recall my inability to swim such that decades ago I had to hold my breath for the span of two swimming pool-lengths to pass a swimming test, without which I could not obtain my college degree—a breathlessness relevant to my reading of this book because of its lengthy sentences.)
The lengthy sentences are all the more impressive for stringing together one fabulous passage after another, like this single yet simply glorious sentence:
“He had made lists for all sorts of things in an attempt to get organized and bring order into his life, though of course it wasn’t order that his life was lacking (once during a job interview, he was asked about his stance on teamwork and collaboration and for his answer had spoken about the importance of establishing order in a group of people, the need for dominance and hierarchy and structure, as in a dictatorship or controlled government arrangement, had repeated the word order several times like a mantra, and as he watched their expressions mute and then shift away, he saw the exact moment they had decided that he would not be getting the job in the research lab yet they had sought to fulfill the obligation of letting him speak and finish out the interview, formality, after all, an important part of systemized structure and gratitude), and yet he clung to the word like a slightly-too-old child clinging to her yellowing blanky and the comfort of sucking her thumb in private, knowing she ought to have grown out of the habit by now, but both idea and action still bringing her comfort and she has yet to find a suitable replacement for the relief of having something soft and loyal to hold on to and having a part of her own body tethered to her mouth in a way that feels like she is doing something while knowing this is a bit perverse, the security of a thumb inside one’s mouth, the noisy and fairly disgusting suck-suck-suck as she lightly chews the thick skin around her thumb, and in the predilection of wrongness and unreached maturity, she manages to realize a complete sense of peace.”
Further into the book, there’s another sentence that can explain the length of Lee’s sentences:
“She had finally broken the paralysis of her writing, that is, she had finally realized what she had been trying to write about, that in her circling and rewriting and extending of sentences that never ended, somehow the hesitation to end any sentence with a period linked to her own inability to push any narrative toward a sense of finality…”
It’s certainly reasonable, this manifesting of hesitation(s) embedded within other hesitations (and for which M-dashes and parenthesis are helpful for focusing a reader). It’s relevant to note that the above sentence doesn’t end where it could end as excerpted. The above sentence-excerpt continues on to say,
“… or, like the process of squatting over a hole in the dense brush when no toilets are available and though the urge and desire are there, the strangeness of the encounter with nature in this way, that is, shitting in a hole in the woods, somehow combats any natural inclination to relieve oneself and so a person might stay in that position for a while, squatting legs tiring, knees shaking, until finally, one either lets it all out freely and sloppily (no one ever said taking shit in nature was natural), or gives up, pulls her pants up, and proceeds onto the next task and in all this hesitation embedded inside of hesitation,….
By the way—and to my distinct appreciation—that sentence isn’t over yet but continues beyond what my fingers have typed to excerpt above—the approach presenting a certain wit to those attuned to catch it.
What’s also impressive is how Lee manages to keep the characters differentiated from each other as well as not subsumed by the long—wordy!—sentences and paragraphs (have I mentioned their length and yes I know I have but repeat the matter for emphasis). Lengthy sentences and paragraphs effect a passage of words against a page that’s unbroken or just once-broken by the visual relief of white space allowed by the shorter-than-page-width length of a passage ending a paragraph and then the resulting stretch of white indicating a paragraph-break—so let’s face it: in the face of such prose intractability, how many readers as a result have had their eyes gloss over instead of read individual words? I don’t mind noting that, as regards the latter, characters’ statements and thoughts are sometimes presented italicized and, in such cases, never have italics been such a source of (visual) relief to the eyes.
Logically then, the writing is not dialogue-driven, unfolding more like a series of character sketches except sketch is not the right sense as there’s too much muscle afforded by the depth of descriptions and observations.
As a result, Imagine A Death is not a page-turner, but in a good way—an effect facilitated by looooong sentences. Now, one way for lengthy sentences to keep a reader’s interest is if they manifest Kapwa—the (Filipino indigenous notion of the) interconnection of all things, before being pockmarked by brilliant singular notes. For example, this single-sentence paragraph that resonantly links language and moths:
“The different modes and textures of language become more apparent in darkness, become more apparent as the moths only show themselves when it is dark yet are drawn to the light, stupid creatures that don’t seem to be able to be stopped and yet it ought to matter that they are moths, that they are winged creatures, that they possess something that humans don’t, including the incapacity for speech.”
Again reflecting Kapwa, the paragraphs, given the scale to expand, can attain a magnificent munificence, e.g. a paragraph (straddling pages 98-98) that begins with “What is the feeling of a mausoleum” and end with “the cry, that lustrous and desolating and calamitous force that is a wailing howl exuding from your own body, that cry is also the logic of this world.” Lee’s range and yet a consistent tone of intimacy within such range are marvelous.
By now, it’s clear that Lee has thrown off the “tyranny of the plot,” reminding us of the special position of “literary fiction.” The book is even filmic, specifically evoking a prolonged art flick that teeters on difficulty but remains palatable through lush imagery. Lee’s lushness surfaces through her diction’s evocativeness and sensory effects.
Lee also wisely introduces non-human species’ voices. The book reminds (encourages us) to listen to other species for a wisdom that may be difficult for humans to know. (Well, unless you’re Janice Lee.) Here, the birds say, “It is the humans that don’t know how to be lost anymore.” Simply, that’s wise.
Lee’s range is also expansive enough to allow (even) humor, though the humor I felt might not have been intended by the author. Humor, after all, is subjective. Nonetheless, I found this phrase hilarious: “This morning the old man, speculating on how things might have turned out differently had he chosen a career as an applied physicist, visits a coffee shop down the street with a large red door and where stale bagels are served…” Perhaps I was amused because I often think of how my life would have changed had I stuck to my guns in my first career instead of throwing it away on a charismatic boyfriend with a leather jacket and motorcycle. Or if I had not dismissed a major press that one time... Don’t we all think similar “what if” thoughts? Yet Lee turns this notion into a brilliant bit of meditation—
“Rather in the constant desire to do something about the vast thoughts always circling around in his head—those thoughts about what a future might look like had he had a better childhood about what his eyes would look like had he made better life decisions, what kind of home he might live in now had he chosen a different career, what kinds of things he might have learned about relationships had he decided to cohabitate with an animal—he believed that in a world such as this there was more often hope in the inevitability of. Nothing that in in the possibility of everything…”
—with a fresh conclusion: “there was more often hope in the inevitability of nothing than in the possibility of everything.” It’s an example of Lee’s philosophical underpinnings that provide critical muscle to what may seem in places to be stream-of-consciousness meanderings (and one of the rewards if one perseveres with reading extremely-long paragraphs).
There’s so much more insights to praise in this book but I need to stop presenting them so that you, Reader, might have the pleasure of discovery when you read Lee’s book… oh, okay, one more! I am particularly taken by Lee’s presentation of the “aevum”—
“A way of labeling the peculiar experience of existence by angels and saints in heaven. Not quite the eternal and divine timelessness of God, and not quite the limited temporality of humans, it was akin to that space betweenwhen one’s hand was resting on his leg, that buzzing and angling of everything contained there though not visible or pointed to by language, not unlike the soul, which wasn’t contained within the body nor did it exist without, but also in that sort of improper eternity, the intersection of indeterminacy with flesh, an ever-present but peculiar distance from the relationships between moving bodies that made time felt, that is, these evenings when the sky would sit beautiful and pale and yellow and rusty against an everchanging sky, the world seemed to deepen according to a certain time that felt endless yet gradual, imperceptible yet known by color and coldness.”
Improper eternity! And it goes on! To linger along—or as I discovered and I suggest you try it, too: to simply type—Lee’s passages is to be transported into bibliophilic nirvana. Indeed, Lee transforms the reading space into a hush—wanting to listen only to the story made me breathless so as not to interrupt the sound of the story in my mind even if the interruption was to be by that which after all is required by living: breathing…
What’s the book about? The book description cites “the otherwise impenetrable depths of grief.” My mother is dead. But I’m not able to write about Mom, in contrast to when I burst out helplessly with a book-length manuscript when Dad died. With Imagine a Book, Janice Lee gives me inspiration: Trust Kapwa. Trust language. Trust how we humans are flawed and that can be ultimately okay…
There’s also a sophisticated subtle thread of meta self-references (though I won’t be presumptuous to call that “self” autobiographical and it’s none of my business anyway) whose knots occasionally surface throughout the book. There’s the discernible referencing of “The Writer,” of course, but even without such titling there are passages that encourage the reader to engage in reading as a doubling where the book is being read as it is written and vice versa. Perhaps this is exemplified by
“What she really felt in this moment was despair, but too, she knew that the body’s uncontrollable shaking and sobbing was a sign that it wanted to live.
Too, there was a reason why she hadn’t yet revealed what her manuscript was about to anyone, including herself.”
There are certain books to which you want to respond with another book, to respond at length. There is so much more to say about Janice Lee’s Imagine a Death. But let me conclude instead by sharing her words through another excerpt, words that speak for themselves to encapsulate what seems to me to be an important take-away from the book: