I am terribly grateful that I got to read this book with a class to help me along. That is, the same class that read Bernard Cooper’s wonderful Maps to Anywhere, about which likewise. I was once in a book club, not for very long, which I wished would go much more deeply and intellectually into very serious books. My father said back then, “it sounds like what you really want is a graduate school classroom.” I see now that he was right. This is “just” an undergraduate class, but a good one.
Notes from No Man’s Land is an essay collection that I think is most obviously about race in the United States, but it is about much more than that, too. The writer is a white woman (albeit one from a remarkably diverse family, not at all a white family), and in writing about race she takes on the voice of “the other,” always a nearly impossible thing to do sensitively, smartly and with authority, but she does it.
Like Maps to Anywhere, this is also a masterpiece of organization; we could pick apart the ordering and titling of Biss’s essays in several ways and still not be through with all she’s done here. The first and last (or next-to-last, depending on interpretation) essays are fragmented contemplations of apparently disparate subjects, that wrap this collection up intelligently. If I had to choose one word to characterize Biss, the writer, as I’ve come to know her on these pages, I would choose “smart.”
The language is poetry, too. Every word choice was considered and weighed. The connecting images are so many and complex that I can hardly begin to see how many levels this book might be read upon. Oh, and she works heavily with a sense of place: what else could I ask for? I will share a few lines, several pages apart:
I fell asleep to the distant sound of drums, which I was not always entirely sure was the distant sound of drums. Rain, blood in the body, explosions in the quarry, and frogs are all drums.
I know now that I left home and I left the drums but I didn’t leave home and I didn’t leave the drums. Sewer plates, jackhammers, subway trains, cars on the bridge, and basketballs are all drums.
And just as a sample (not to bore you), I’ll share a little of the analysis I wrote for class of Biss’s opening essay, “Time and Distance Overcome.”
I appreciated both the braided form, and all the white space.
There are three sections separated by a centered line. The longest single paragraph is about half a page long (wraps pages 5-6, about the sabotage against telephone poles that took place in Sioux Falls, SD and Oshkosh, WI). Mostly the paragraphs are just a few sentences long; five contain just one sentence each. These short, punctuated passages feel almost staccato, almost list-like. This works well for the subject matter, which begins benignly but quickly turns dark.
Biss begins with Bell’s invention of the telephone, and the reader has one expectation for the meaning of “time and distance overcome,” the title which tops this first page, where the telephone is introduced. The first section of the essay moves smoothly from telephones to telephone poles, and the resistance early telephone poles encountered. After that first break, though, the lynchings begin coming fast and thick, in short sentences that echo the choppy effect of Biss’s short, double-returned paragraphs. The first lines of this second section read:
“In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets. In Danville, Illinois…”
This jarring delivery emphasizes the nasty jolt of the sentences’ content. Likewise, the direct leap into the new subject – no transition – increases the reader’s shock. Lynchings are shocking: this is appropriate. The short sentences and feeling of litany continues, from lynchings through race riots and from the South to the North, making clear a general rather than geographically specific trend.
The final, shortest section, at just half a page, mirrors the work of Notes from No Man’s Land as a whole. That is, it turns back around to an earlier time, Biss’s childhood, family history, and innocent view of telephone poles; there are no lynchings in this section, but there is reference: “Nothing is innocent.” Then there are the telephone poles in Nebraska that, after a heavy rain, grew small leafy branches. This image prefaces “All Apologies,” the concluding essay of the book which echoes this one in form, and concerns itself with regret, apology, the duality of responsibility/guilt, and what is owed. There is a small measure of hope in those green branches.
The most obvious thread or theme that holds this essay together is the telephone pole; the reader is prompted by the cover image. But the less obvious, more sinister themes are those that hold the book together: race relations, the complexities of varied perspectives. “The world was not waiting for the telephone.” “Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.” “But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”
I think Biss’s opening essay shapes in miniature the work of her entire book; presages the final essay, which so nicely wraps up by recalling the opening; and uses form to emphasize subject matter. It’s an extraordinary essay in these layers of function, and I’m so glad to have her “Notes” to shed some light into her process.
I am impressed throughout with what Biss is confident enough to leave out, or point obliquely towards. I think it must take a lot of courage and self-trust (or is it trust in her reader?) to leave such subtlety on the page and not direct my gaze. “You can get it or not, all the same to me,” she seems to be saying.
This is the kind of work I very much want to study, forever.