The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.
– Mary Clearman Blew
In a portrait, you have room to have a point of view. The image may not be literally what’s going on, but it’s representative.
– Annie Leibovitz
Ours has been called the age of literary memoir. Though I roll my eyes at grandiose words like age—predictably so since ours is also, we are told, an age of irony—I am convinced there is substance to this claim. Memoir, and its umbrella category creative nonfiction, belongs to us in the way the doorstop novel belonged to the Victorians. The significance of the innovative writing that has emerged for decades from within this general category has been proved by a proliferation of labels: not only memoir, literary memoir, and creative nonfiction, but also narrative journalism, narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and personal essay. It is as if traditional terms of literary description burst at the seams when applied to the best new nonfiction writing. Nowhere is this pressure more evident than in that overlooked but absolutely necessary device, the subtitle.
Of course, if subtitles are overlooked, they are only overlooked in a scholarly sense. Subtitles are not given much critical attention because scholars and reviewers understand they are not an intrinsic element of a literary work of art. They are too often shaped by a publisher’s or a marketer’s whim, and who can say if a particular subtitle was agreeable to the writer at all? Yet writers and readers know how much a subtitle matters and also how much more it matters in the wide-ranging realm of creative nonfiction.
When I wrote a book my editor privately called memoir-ish the only delay in the publication process involved the subtitle. Everyone involved in choosing it understood that in a shifting sea of new nonfiction work the subtitle is one of the most important signals guiding a reader’s expectations. We disagreed over the subtitle because it wasn’t easy for a handful of words to do as much work as we needed them to do.
If subtitles for nonfiction books are beacons in a wild and varied terrain, then the subtitle of Jessie Van Eerden’s new book casts an especially bright and exact beam: The Long Weeping is, we read on the cover, a collection of “Portrait Essays.”
The Victorians had their portrait novels (Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady comes first to mind) and now Van Eerden gives us the contemporary equivalent, a collection of portrait essays. And though writing an essay-long character description might be an assignment in any creative writing class, Van Eerden’s collection both fulfills and explodes the expectations established by those combined words portrait and essay. By the end of this book, I couldn’t even say with confidence whether I had read a work of nonfiction or fiction, suggesting that our literary moment might best be captured in the tension of oppositional pairs like fiction/nonfiction, short story/essay, and memoir/anti-memoir, that final pair the preferred category of a similar, genre-defying contemporary writer, Rebecca Solnit.
Van Eerden’s creations are fiction and nonfiction, portraits and self-portraits, stories and essays, all. But these elements don’t add up to chaos or even collage but to a shimmering and much more seamless whole. These various forms, as antithetical as they might at first seem to minds like ours used to analyzing and categorizing, don’t function as separate entities or diminish one another, and it isn’t merely that they complement one another (though they do). Rather, Van Eerden’s careful nonfiction and honest memoir build toward a final exuberant portrait that blends both of these elements with history, religion, and imagination in a work of literary portraiture that is both dazzling yet also painfully precise.
By the end of The Long Weeping, we discover that Van Eerden has shattered yet another boundary within the contemporary literary scene and proven false one of our most persistent artistic myths: that one cannot create serious art and also take seriously the culture and spirituality of traditional religion.
The Long Weeping begins with self-portrait. This is an astute choice because it suggests that this portrait artist is willing to turn her searching eye on her own self as well as on others, a willingness that matters when the art in question is so full of hazards and snares. The most important questions invoked in the early essays are questions about the ethics of portraiture and the complicated power dynamics between artists and their subjects. Is it possible to see others whole? Can we communicate what we see in ways that are not reductive? Van Eerden, at least early in the book, seems unsure and her descriptions of an elderly neighbor she knew as a child in West Virginia are deliberately circumspect. It’s a measure of Van Eerden’s ability that circumspect in these essays never means vague or imprecise.
Van Eerden tells us that this neighbor once “looked at the camera dead center” when “President Johnson’s photographers came combing through Appalachia in the Sixties,” but the camera captured only the ugly traces of poverty and none of the dignity or love. This essay, then, aims to show “Eliza” whole, a project that is as much about the writer as it is the woman being written about. Van Eerden never claims that this reparative project will matter to one who “never saw [herself] in the way they saw you, framed and cropped for a project,” but it seems to matter a great deal to the writer. Biography melds with autobiography, and a true portrait of “Eliza” begins to seem like a necessary and even foundational element of Van Eerden’s attempt to describe her family home and, by extension, to tell her own story.
If the epigraph from Kafka is to be believed, this attempt is also a significant one for Van Eerden’s readers: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds,” Kafka writes. This whole book can be seen as an attempt to invite others in through something we might call anti-photography. Anti-photographic portraits welcome even “othered” parts of the self, such as the body parts we prefer to hide, and even “othered” aspects of life, such as failure, sorrow, and death. Van Eerden’s portrait essays are radically hospitable.
Many of these things we prefer not to see are present in the autobiographical prologue, but they belong to the whole community: the young narrator has hairy legs, her teenaged sister has itchy armpits, and the old people in the church funeral service have grinding hips and blue-veined skin. It is right that the body would figure so largely in a collection of portraits, yet Van Eerden seems to describe bodies in a way that goes beyond the portraitist’s usual mandate to portray through the physical something of what lies beneath superficial physical traits. Over the course of this collection, faithful attention to the uniqueness of bodies is precisely what allows Van Eerden to explore the spiritual concerns that are shared by every body.
In the prologue, a young Van Eerden flees death, in the form of a funeral, in jelly shoes that pinch. She drinks deeply from a hand pump in a scene that seems to deliberately recall Jesus offering living water to the woman at the well. This self-portrait is followed by portraits of others who shared Van Eerden’s mountain home, among them family, friends, neighbors, as well as Christian mystics and Biblical figures who also seem right at home in the West Virginia mountains. By the book’s end a Biblical Rizpah, who is also in some ways a self-portrait of an older Van Eerden matured and even blessed by sorrow, refuses to flee. She lies down with death and receives something better than a miracle, not the reversal of death but something beyond it.
In an essay concerned with the writing process, Van Eerden affirms her commitment “to say things true,” but she clarifies: “And by true I mean, not factual, but honest.” Van Eerden’s portrait of Rizpah, whose story is little more than a footnote in the second book of Samuel, is flagrantly and riotously non-factual. Rizpah keeps her vigil over the bodies of her sons and grandsons along a highway, is fed by a shoplifting Kroger employee, and dons a wild pink wig. I hate to use a reviewer’s cliché for such an astonishing piece of writing, but every cliché was once a useful phrase and Van Eerden’s portrayal of Rizpah is, I am sure, an artistic and spiritual tour de force.
If The Long Weeping teases out the possibilities of oppositional pairings like biography/autobiography and fiction/nonfiction it suggests, to me, another meaningful pairing: portrait/anti-portrait. With a nod to Solnit’s conception of the anti-memoir, a form that allows for the difficulty in knowing the self, the portrait/anti-portrait line does not hinge on the difference between a portrait and a self-portrait. I was convinced only a few pages into The Long Weeping that portraits and self-portraits lie right alongside one another on a continuum, and the two weave in and out of one another in these essays. Rather by portrait/anti-portrait I mean to describe the most subtle portrait offered in this book: God’s portrait.
A portrait of God by an atheist would portray absence. A portrait of God by a believer would emphasize presence. Van Eerden’s anti-portrait offers something between the two: a portrait of God as most present in absence. In the “droughted” world of The Long Weeping, a world that includes Appalachia and ancient Israel, we pray for rain, but we can find God neither in the rain nor its lack. The problem with rain is that it does not remember—as memoir remembers—but wipes the past, and especially its grief, “clean and clear.” The problem with rain is that it “does not penetrate, it is too hard and too fast.” Instead, Van Eerden’s God is found in “tears” and in the morning “dew.” This is “the quench within the thirst itself.” God’s is the presence that surprises us among “rubbish” and within “ash-heap[s].”
In her portrait of thirteenth-century Beguine mystics, Van Eerden tells us, “The way I see it, a mystic takes a peek at God and then does her best to show the rest of us what she saw. She’ll use image-language, not discourse.” Van Eerden makes no claim to have seen God, but the God she can’t quite see is everywhere in these portraits: “Sometimes you see nothing in the sky, no promises or marks of Jesus’s feet, no sign that he’s coming back to bring you home–so you write the nothing and the no-place, too.”
In The Long Weeping, questions about the ethics of portraiture become questions about the spirituality of portraiture. Is it possible to see God and to see God whole? Is it possible to communicate what we see in ways that are not reductive? Van Eerden seems consistently unsure. In the final pages, Rizpah describes God as “beneath God—like a seed in a covered furrow,” but admits “she doesn’t really know.” Yet this reader is convinced. The most successful though perhaps least accessible portrait in The Long Weeping is a portrait of a God who is found in the places we would least expect to find God, the very places where God seems most not to be. “I have always wanted to know if you can love emptiness,” Van Eerden writes. In this beautiful, startling book I glimpsed the possibility, not only of loving emptiness, but of being loved by it, too.
Christie Purifoy is a writer and gardener who lives with her family in a Victorian farmhouse in southeastern Pennsylvania. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago and is the author of two books, Roots and Sky (Revel, 2016) and Placemaker (Zondervan, coming in 2019).