“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard

At the gracious request of Uriah Pariah, here is a my response to an essay I admire greatly, and more and more every time I read it. “The Fourth State of Matter” appears in Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth, and you can read it here.

NOTE: This review includes spoilers, and I feel strongly about the reader’s first experience with this essay being a blind read. If you don’t know what it’s about, please STOP now and go read it yourself first before continuing with my lesser words.

I think this post has to include the story of how I came to this essay in the first place. It was assigned reading in Suzanne Paola’s Intro to Creative Nonfiction Writing class at Western Washington University, an undergrad course I took in my early 30s a few years ago, surrounded by people not old enough to legally purchase beer (itself a weird time). Suzanne is a gift to the world and to this art form, but that’s another story. I read the essay she’d assigned without knowing anything about it. So my experience was innocent, like most of the readers (I assume) who first encountered it in The New Yorker in 1996. I have since been assigned the same essay several times, and have read it additional times for “pleasure” (though that’s not quite the right word) and study. I’ll never have that first read again, but it still gets better every time. I wish the same for you.

So, on first read, this is what presented itself to me: the narrator has an old dog, a collie, who is nearing death, in the most sympathetic, almost apologetic fashion. Jo Ann sleeps in fits and starts, between cleaning up after the collie’s incontinence. She has squirrels in her spare bedroom, and her husband has just left her. It’s a rough time. Then we go to work with Jo Ann, and meet her quite likable colleague, Chris. They are quite different–he is a space physicist, she is the managing editor of the space physics journal and vague on the science–but have a genial relationship, so comfortable that I instantly relate, even envy them a little.

This essay is a braid, and a very fine example of that form, but sort of subtle too, because the various braids (and there are several: dying dog, squirrels, estranged husband, work relationships with Chris and others) all come from the same timeline, the present tense of the essay. It’s not clear at first whether they will work as braided fibers or a single story, although I think they come out in a braid, and like the finest such essays, they are tied up together at the end, so that there is a moment of reveal: the reader’s aha, when she sees how tragically these narrative threads are all in fact one.

Because what this essay is “really” about is the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, when a graduate student killed five and maimed a sixth before shooting himself. Jo Ann knew the shooter and several of his victims, including her dear friend Chris.

This “real” material comes on slowly, then suddenly. There are foreshadowing moments of darkness, but when the first bullet flies the reader still feels a shock. It felt very realistic to me in this way: it felt like the faculty and students on campus might have felt that day.

Jo Ann goes home in shock. She takes care of the collie dog. She has already had an old friend take care of the squirrels in the spare bedroom. She is surrounded by friends who want to help her, although they don’t know how; her estranged ex-husband (not a sympathetic character) comes around and bumbles some more. Again, the telling feels like what she might have experienced in the living of it. The essay ends on a heartbreakingly beautiful elegiac note, and we are bereft: that this fine piece of art is over, and that lives have been lost, along with the squirrels and the not-quite-yet-dead-but-still-dying beloved dog.

One of the things that struck me most on my first reading was how much the dog affected me. Because, be clear, five people were murdered and followed by one suicide, then another; an additional victim was left paralyzed; a major university was deeply wounded. But the dog. My own old dog has been getting older and less cogent for years now–he’s still going, amazingly, but even when I first read this essay, I could feel his mortality. When we discussed “The Fourth State of Matter” in that undergraduate class, I was a little surprised to learn that nearly everyone had this story, though, about a beloved old dog, dead or dying. Of course, I quickly saw what nonsense it was to think that I had a monopoly on this. It’s a pretty universal feeling. We love our dogs.

Also, though, the essay starts with the dog. Beard’s first line reads, “The collie wakes me about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.” My personal impression of this essay is that the collie dog–who goes unnamed, lending her even more of the universal, the ur-dog, the archetypical beloved–stands in for everything else that is lost. The youth and innocent partying of the squirrels, the broken love of the husband, the lives (Chris, who Jo Ann was close to, but also Bob, who she disliked and fought with constantly)–all of this, for me, is contained in the dog. For me, it’s a near-perfect essay, if not perfect. I haven’t even mentioned all the single lines that are crystalline, funny and perfect, as well. Go read it, again.

There have been criticisms. For one thing, Beard plays loose with the facts in characterizing the shooter, Gang Lu, attributing thoughts and feelings to him, supplying some of the content of letters he left behind explaining his actions. On first reading, I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe enough of those letters (for example) had been released to the public to allow her to know what she claims to know in this essay, but that is not the case. I’m so much on board with this essay that I no longer care. Funny, I’m a stickler for truth in nonfiction, until my heart has been won, and then I don’t care anymore. (See also Albert Goldbarth’s “Fuller.”)

Then there is the question of how we write about violence, about trauma, and about other people’s losses. This was the subject of Katie Fallon’s seminar at my recent residency, for which I was most recently assigned this essay, among other lovely pieces of writing. The class was divided, although “The Fourth State of Matter” was not at the center of our discussion–we mostly focused on Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” another piece I dearly love, although my peers are not all in agreement about it. We wonder, with pieces like these, about exploiting trauma, about glorifying violence, about whether to number the gunman in the death count, about when a story is “ours” to write about. We all have different reactions to these questions, and that’s not really what this blog post is meant to be about, but I will say about “The Fourth State of Matter” that I think Beard stays well on the side of writing about her own personal experience of this tragedy. She may not be all in the clear on the question of fact-in-nonfiction, but I think she’s fairly safe on exploiting violence. Again, because she makes it about a dog, some squirrels, and a dear friend. Or, as the original commenter put it when he requested this post: “it’s the fact that it was her story to tell, and a true one at that, that lends it its ultimate power.” That’s why nonfiction, my friend.

Uriah Pariah, thank you for asking me to write this. Hope it’s been helpful.

I already said it when putting together my best-of-2017 post:

Rating: 10 faces of love.

4 Responses

  1. […] but remained mesmerized by both content and style regardless of my familiarity. Sort of like with that Beard essay I so revere, “Buckeye” remains a feat to appreciate on every reading, even six or eight readings […]

  2. […] “The Fourth State of Matter”, Jo Ann Beard […]

  3. […] thinking-on-the-page. I’m thinking of the masterful braiding in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I so love, but even more complexly. And long: these essays are 20, 30, 40 and 50 […]

  4. […] “The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard – nonfiction (reread) […]

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