by Christopher Bowen
Burning River; 1st edition (2016)
Having known nothing about Christopher Bowen before I read his story, When I Return To You, I Will Be Unfed, my first thought was: he must be a poet. The 51-page book covers so much complexity, and Bowen pulls this off because every sentence has multiple meanings. I imagine Bowen crafting a complicated paper doll chain with words; he cuts each sentence with precision, so that the end result is a series of separate yet equally accurate versions of the truth. And like a paper doll chain, everything is a mirror image.
The book is told from the perspective of Jim, who is in the hospital with a diagnosis of Bipolar with psychosis. Bowen does strange and jarring things with point of view. Again and again, the voice becomes Rob, Jim’s long-time friend, and then shifts back to Jim. A paper doll chain can be interpreted as being multiple replicas of the same doll—or as being separate entities, that only look alike. Bowen creates this effect with words.
This effect is amplified when you find out Jim hears voices. And it’s further complicated by the fact that Jim is an empathetic observer; he takes on pieces of others’ mental worlds, making this small book feel comprehensive. It encompasses nature, mental illness, human connection, empathy, memory, poetry. It’s almost as though Jim is the Collective Unconscious.
There’s a word, “sonder”, for the feeling of being overwhelmed by the amount of people in the world with complex inner lives—the sheer amount of thoughts, emotions, and stories you’ll never know. For many people, there’s an added layer of mystery (and in a lot of cases, misunderstanding), when you add a mental illness to that mix. Jim seems to feel sonder—and after getting a small taste of Jim’s inner world, I couldn’t help but feel it too. There is so much to learn about his brain.
By choice, I read this several times, and each subsequent reading felt like piecing together mysteries of the narrator’s mind. Every sentence is a clue.
Every sentence, also, is beautiful—a self-contained poem. This is another way Bowen is able to craft such a remarkably complex story in a short span.
When, ostensibly, Rob is narrating, he says:
“I knew Jim was sad. How deep the river ran, I don’t know. They say you only see ripples of rocks from rivers running deep enough. Sometimes, you see rapids.” (13)
It’s perhaps worth noting that I wrote that quote from memory. For weeks, it ran through my head like a song. Each time, it took on a new layer of meaning. And each time, I envisioned a different person speaking those words. Sometimes it was simply Rob, contemplating his friend’s mental illness. Other times it was Jim, observing himself from the outside. And still others, it was one of Jim’s voices, who happens to be his friend Rob. All felt true.
Jim and Rob share obsessions. Both narrators return often to the idea of bees. Rob talks about how, when the two were kids, Jim’s father taught him about bees:
“Honey bees are one of the only insects that once they’ve stung, die off. When I was a child, Jim’s father showed me this…when I walked across Jim’s lawn covered in clover, I’d gotten stung…after the shock of the sting, hobbling through the front door crying, he took my foot showing me the stinger. There was a sac attached to the end of it.
‘That’s where the bee keeps his poison,’ he said.
‘Does that mean I’m going to die?”
‘No, their poison is only a way to hurt or warn you. It’s only useful on other bugs,’ he laughed. (12)
Later, Jim says, of his desire to escape the hospital:
“I’m a honey bee you know…I’m dying because I used to fly, but I can’t now. I feel sad…The sadness grows, covers my wings, my stinger, my honey. Maybe it is honey. I feel it and not in a good way. Am I trapped in this sweetness and is it compassion?” (18)
Even if the two are separate narrators, Jim’s relationship to other people adds a poignancy to that line, “It’s only useful on other bugs”. Jim’s downfall is his best quality, his deep empathy. Every interaction is thick with it. It’s even present in smaller, subtler ways, like during a group session with his fellow patients:
“Gary continues to nod for the next five minutes before pointing to the seat next to him. I look into his eyes.” (23)
Jim’s sonder often presents itself in this abstract sort of way. But other times, it’s more literal. For instance, at one point, Jim’s doctor says he has to leave for a meeting; immediately, Jim says he has to has to leave for a meeting. It’s as though he’s trying to understand those around him by literally embodying them. This further blurs the lines between characters. The paper doll chain replicates itself again and again, until it comes full circle—back to the first doll. The first doll, in this case, is Jim.
During a meeting on Jim’s progress, Jim’s doctor tells him they can’t discharge him until it’s certain he knows who he is. I left this book with a similar feeling, which is perhaps why I picked it up again and again.
Bowen not only captures the complexities of living with a mental illness, but also the complexity of human thought generally. I came away from the book somehow believing that all of these voices are Jim’s, and also that all of these voices are different narrators. This book did something to me—something that made those two possibilities seem not mutually exclusive.
Jim says (32), “If there are thoughts that aren’t real then what can I believe in.” But in this book, it felt like the definition of “real” was expanding. As though—on top of there being truth in multiple versions of reality—seeming opposites could exist in tandem. Jim’s identity is part fractured, part utterly expansive and whole. Most of these characters seem both defeated and hopeful. And, as Jim says about the honey stuck on his stinger: there is awfulness in sweetness. I can believe in everything.