Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Futilitarians by Anne Gisleson

So, I have a "story" that led me to this book and it takes place where so many spooky, coincidental, ghosty stories do: New Orleans. This past spring, I was lucky enough to take a long weekend trip to the city. I was born in Louisiana and grew up just outside of New Orleans in Kenner. I left when I was 12, after my parents split up and have been a New Yorker ever since. In the ensuing 29 years, returning to Louisiana has always been fraught with a mixture of emotions; some nostalgia, some apprehension, and a decent helping of sliding-doors-style what would have become of me if had I never left this crazy, magical place. The last time I visited was in 2004, right before the core of the city changed forever. Enough time and distance has passed for me to feel towards my birthplace the way I feel about a film I loved, but saw a long time ago: observing from outside, but feeling a pang of nostalgia and belonging.

My most recent springtime was fraught with sadness and health problems. My heart was both broken at a recent loss and it was literally not functioning properly, resulting in tests and doctors' visits and moments when I thought I might actually be dying (though I should note that I never was, actually...that's the "charming" thing about heart issues.) So this trip was a welcome respite.

I wanted to take advantage of my time and I was a tourist through and through, mainly because New Orleans is a fantastic place to be a tourist. At one stop, my group and I visited Lafayette cemetery, a beautiful, somber, city for both the dead and the living, with mausoleums arranged like a small city, the “streets” full of stories and sadness and memory. On the day we walked through, I was feeling my heart beat a thousand miles a minute and was doing my best to focus on the names and dates of the headstones we passed. This is something I do anyway, my imagination searching in vain to know about the people and the lives they left behind.

I passed a mausoleum that had a glittery high heeled shoe in front of it and saw that it belonged to a family by the name of Gisleson. The final name on the list was Geronimo, and not only was I struck by how unique and beautiful the name was, but I was also struck by how young he was when he passed. He was twenty four.

Later that day, resting in the air conditioning of my very old, quasi-spooky hotel room, trying to ignore my medication and heat induced dizziness, his lyrical name popped up in my head again and I Googled his name. His obituary said that he had “lost his battle with addiction” which is tragic. But I was also struck that it was in his obituary at all. I thought it brave of his family to include that detail, which is rare to see, but important in the fight against drug addiction. The Google search also revealed that other members of his family had preceded him in death, two aunts who were around my age (and also very young when they died) as well as a prominent grandfather, that he received care during his final days in Oschner Hospital, a place where I spent a week sleeping in my mother’s hospital room after my younger brother was born. It seemed to me like I knew families just like his, could have grown up with someone just like him. It did make me want to know more about this family but, in the interest of not prying into lives, accompanied by my being sick while on vacation, I stopped searching there. That was in March.

Around the end of September, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I started to clear out the search history of my phone (as you do when you are an insomniac and it’s 2am) and, since I’m a bit obsessive about things I’ve searched, I was checking to make sure I didn’t delete anything I might want to remember. And there was the name again, Geronimo. I reread the obituary again, six months after I first came across it and I thought about that family, wondered about them and felt a strange melancholy for people I’ve never met.

The very next day at work, I was straightening out books on display. Someone had rearranged some of the titles and as I was fixing it, I noticed a book had fallen behind the others in between the shelves. I reached behind the shelf to pry it out and when I looked at the cover, I saw a familiar last name: Gisleson. This time it was Anne Gisleson. The name is so unusual that I was stunned. Reading the jacket copy I saw that the author resided in New Orleans and the summary of the book mentioned the tragedy of the author losing her two sisters and father. This woman was Geronimo’s aunt. I don’t always put too much stock in signs, but sometimes, it just feels like you should follow a path. I felt compelled to read this book and I did. Below is my review.

In 2012, Gisleson was emerging from a period of hardship and grief. She and a friend decided to form a book club and call it the Existential Crisis Reading Group (ECRG) or The Futilitarians. Still mourning her recently deceased father, the ravages of hurricane Katrina on her home and home city, and the long ago loss of her beloved twin sisters, Rebecca and Rachel, both to suicide, Gisleson found herself at a moment in life where gathering together with a group of friends to read and discuss existential writings and searching seemed like the perfect thing to do. So, together with her husband (who also experienced tragedy) gathered a group together to discuss existential works and in the process, hopefully, to lend some comfort to each other. This memoir covers the year they formed the group.

With an impressive reading list that included (but was not limited to) Kingsley Amis, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Tadeusz Borowski, Shakespeare, Kafka, Tolstoy, and several others, including a poet named Everette Maddox who's work I need to get to know, the group spends the year gathering and discussing and grasping for meaning and connection.  Each chapter is dedicated to the group’s monthly meeting and Gisleson discusses their readings, their ensuing conversation, all while drawing connections to her state of mind and the memories of her beloved father and sisters.

From the outset of the book, it is very clear that Gisleson is an intellectual. The writing is heavy on philosophy and introspection; what else could be expected in a book about a book club? She is a creative writing teacher and her work combines her philosophical interests and her way with prose. There were many standout passages. To wit:

"Someone once asked if it fucked me up having two sisters who committed suicide. I gave a wrongish, three-beers-in answer ----"Yeah, when I think about it. But, wanting to cut that line of inquiry off, I didn't explain that I thought about it a few times and hour for the year and a half between their deaths and then for about another year after Rachel died. These continuous sucker punches to the gut wore me down in ways that weren't evident at the time, and maybe still aren’t. Subsequent years were textured by the fragile, damaged quality of a Metaphysical Hangover. The roiling uneasiness of aftermath gives way to despair, then teases you with moments of relief and normalcy only to pull you under with another current of grief."

The specter of her deceased loved ones permeates the book and as she works through her losses, she writes intimately of her memories, bringing the reader inside her family. I felt immersed in her (and their) stories and the moments when she writes about her relationships with her father and sisters read much a like a generational novel. There was no mention of her nephew but that could be for any number of reasons. Gisleson is a gifted writer. She also writes vividly about New Orleans both in the present as well as in memory, having spent her whole life there and witnessing the transformation post-Hurricane Katrina.

"After a few years, the city's transformation that accompanied the Rebuilding Hangover was followed by the stubborn, natural, but rather American forgetting, a collective survival mechanism, a getting back to "normal." But I think that once you've seen firsthand what the wholesale destruction of your home looks like, the memory of it forms a substratum in your consciousness, alive and molten under the optimistic layers of the reconstruction, under the new foundations and drywall, new roads and schools."

Overall, I am glad that I followed the coincidences that led me to this book. As someone who often lives introspectively, processing grief and alienation through reading (and sometimes drinking), the themes of this work resonated. I would love to start a similar book club post-Trump age (I don’t think I or anyone I know could take too much of existential reading that isn’t the news) and will make note of her reading list. I’m also happy to have learned about that family I wondered about all those months ago. It is a beautiful rarity for which I am grateful.

I would recommend this to philosophy readers, New Orleans-o-philes, anyone working through grief or loss.

As just occurs to me, this book qualifies for Reading Challenge #3 in the BookRiot Reading challenge: Read a book about books. Score!

BookRiot 2017 Read Harder Challenge

1. Read a book about sports.
2. Read a debut novel.
3. Read a book about books.
4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
6. Read an all-ages comic.
7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
8. Read a travel memoir.
9. Read a book you’ve read before.
10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
12. Read a fantasy novel.
13. Read a nonfiction book about technology.
14. Read a book about war.
15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
17. Read a classic by an author of color.
18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
19. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.
20. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
21. Read a book published by a micropress.
22. Read a collection of stories by a woman.
23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

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