Mystery and Mortality: Essays on the Sad, Short Gift of Life
by Paula Bomer
Publishing Genius Press (2017)
Paula Bomer’s Mystery and Mortality: Essays on the Sad, Short Gift of Life is a fascinating hybrid of personal narrative and literary criticism that’s absorbing and intelligent. In writing about books that draw her in, Bomer creates intimate reflections on the intersection of literature and life.
This is Bomer’s first essay collection. She’s also the author of the collections Baby and Other Stories and Inside Madeleine as well as the novel Nine Months. I’m a big fan of Bomer’s fiction, of her uninhibited prose with all its bloody, raw and difficult beauty. The voice of her nonfiction is just as engaging, still naked and unafraid, but in a way that is quieter and more searching. As a reader, I feel as though I’m in conversation with Bomer as she pieces together literary designs and patterns, making connections between writers and ideas that are organic and personal.
These essays offer us a peek into Bomer’s rich interior world while demonstrating her keen ability to put pull references from multiple sources and assemble new ways of understanding the works of Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Franzen, Kathy Acker, and others. She gives equal time and consideration to lesser-known writers (or, less well known to me): Peter Handke, Maryse Holder, David Galgut, Brian Allen Carr, and Brandon Hobson. All of it is done with an eye toward making sense of her own story.
The collection tackles subjects such as sex, death—and the death before death, hunger, hopelessness, shame, compassion and the many ways that loss shapes us. In essay after essay, Bomer seems most interested in the extent to which we maintain or lose control in the battle we have with ourselves. She says it this way, “We all struggle, more or less, with how to control our thoughts, our bodies, our actions, our lives, and fail at least some of the time, if not more.” Later, she writes, “But my point is that whether we can or can’t control our minds or our bodies, we simply can’t control ourselves—be it our thoughts or actions—and this lack of control is usually part of what we all see as our demise.”
Whether this failure is the result of free will or outside forces is up for debate. In an essay about Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back,” Bomer says it this way, “God is something that happens to us.” O’Connor is a favorite, referenced several times throughout these essays. Bomer also sees Catholicism as a strong influence in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. She takes issue with the inverted understanding of many young students who view the novel’s violence as being “inevitable” and also “interesting.” In particular, she disagrees when the character Anton Chigurh is described as “the epitome of evil.” Bomer writes, “None of these things is true, and in fact, they are the actual meaning of violence, inverted. Anton is an angel, sent by God to destroy all of those who suffer from greed…We are a battleground for forces much larger than us…” Her argument is compelling.
It’s to Bomer’s credit that none of her musings are grim. Neither is her literary criticism scholarly in a way that is dry, impersonal or irrelevant. In fact, it’s the opposite. Her essays offer fresh analysis, as well as original pairings and juxtapositions. The devilment of Tolstoy’s sexual obsessions, the internal devil of Foster Wallace’s sadness, and Maryse Holder’s devil of addictions make sense in relation to each other as Bomer describes it. She brings a personal understanding to her readings that reflect her deep and involved level of insight. For her, stories are a springboard to understanding the larger world. As if justifying these essays, she writes “…we need stories to understand things, even if we know they are not the whole truth.”
At times, Bomer seems to be studying these writers, making notes and asking herself questions about ways to construct her own fiction. In “On Compassion: Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards” and Mary Gaitskill’s “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,”” Bomer probes deep into a character’s motivation. “Love, here, can be understood in two ways: one, as a finite thing, existing inside the heart of a person; or two, love as something that flows, as an action, something we do, not something we have.” Later, she asks, “How to achieve compassion without being clinical? Does the reader have to like the characters? Does the author have to like the characters?” A beat later, she answers herself. “I would hope not; compassion is not “liking.”…To feel for is enough.”
Readers will more than feel for Bomer as she writes poignant portraits of her parents: “My Mother’s Demenia” is a beautiful opener; the book closes with a devastating essay about her father’s suicide. Throughout, she compares her experience with the stories that have consoled her. The personal essay, “Interstitial Cystitis” about Bomer’s year-long struggle with an unknown ailment is arresting as she describes her search for meaning and understanding, evaluating every inch of her life, both internally and externally, literally and figuratively. “It’s funny how transformative even a moment of kindness can be,” she writes.
At the heart of this collection is the search for the shared sense of humanity and compassion that fiction provides us. These essays remind us that stories give us a way to connect rather than to escape. Mystery and Mortality: Essays on the Sad, Short Gift of Life will make you lean in and listen, will change the way you read. At the intersection of literature and life, all of us love and suffer, none of us are without flaws and failures, but that’s is the point. As Bomer says, “…it’s an ugly, beautiful thing.”