STARRED REVIEW
August 11, 2020

The Unreality of Memory

By Elisa Gabbert
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The novelist Walker Percy once asked, “Why do people driving around on beautiful Sunday afternoons like to see bloody automobile wrecks?” With this simple question, Percy reveals the depth of human malaise. We seek the bloody in the beautiful and savor the gratifying and self-satisfied thrill of knowing we ourselves have momentarily escaped the suffering of the accident. In her absolutely stunning collection of essays, The Unreality of Memory, which is part medical and psychological sleuthing and part memoir, Elisa Gabbert takes up Percy’s question and places it in our current cultural context.

Gabbert’s opening essay, “Magnificent Desolation,” explores the human loss of three catastrophic events: the sinking of the Titanic, the collapse of the World Trade Center and the Challenger disaster. She ends the essay by admitting she has a “strange instinctual desire for things to get even worse” when bad things happen, and she knows she isn't alone in feeling this way. “I fear this part of me, the small but undeniable pull of disaster," she writes. "It’s something we all must have inside of us. Who can say it doesn’t have influence? This secret wish for the blowout ending?”

Gabbert doesn't only probe into our fascination with the pull of death and disaster. She also peers behind the curtains of mortality and time to explore the ways that memory and story either lull us into complacency about moral evil or allow us to embrace impending death. In “The Great Mortality,” about being faced with overwhelming facts about a natural disasters that could extinguish a massive number of human lives, she reflects, “In this age of horrible news all the time, we understand it instantly: ironic suicidal ideation . . . there’s something real behind it—the fantasy of the swift death, the instinct just to get it over with.” In her essay “I’m So Tired,” Gabbert concludes, with some relief, that humans don’t simply wish to witness a catastrophe and stand aside but that “compassion fatigue stems from a desire to help.”

Gabbert candidly asks startling and unsettling questions about our view of human nature and the ways we are often complicit in the suffering of others. With the world teetering on the brink of the political, social, environmental and medical abyss, The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times.

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