by Vivian Wagner
Marcia Aldrich’s Companion to an Untold Story (University of Georgia Press, 2012) is the story of her friend Joel’s suicide, told in bits and pieces in the form of an abecadarium, with short essays for each letter of the alphabet. It’s a fragmented work, with much cross-referencing and footnoting, and it’s the kind of story that accrues meaning through its fragmentation.
What appeals to me about this book is that its form makes sense given its subject matter. It’s as if the suicide were a bomb blast, and these pieces shrapnel. The shock waves of a suicide reverberate for years afterwards, and this book attempts to capture, record, and make sense of these vibrations.
At the same time, it’s about the inability to make sense out of an essentially senseless act, and the book’s form grows organically out of the difficulty of telling a straightforward, chronological narrative about trauma. Trauma, at its heart, resists chronology and narrative, and this is one of Companion to an Untold Story’s central truths.
The shock waves of a suicide reverberate for years afterwards, and this book attempts to capture, record, and make sense of these vibrations.
The book begins with an entry titled “Age at death:” “In obituaries, a proxy for the worth and fullness of the life. Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six.” It’s a factual entry, at the same time as it questions the viability and usefulness of such facts, which stand in for the “worth and fullness of the life.”
The book continues to weave in and out of facts, information, details, and vignettes, eventually creating something like a story out of the pieces left behind in the wake of Joe’s suicide. Many of the book’s essays deal with the seemingly random objects that Joel bequeathed to Aldrich and her husband: an egg cup, a microscope, a telescope, and other items. The story looks at them in detail, and in the way Joel sent them before his death, trying to answer one central question that haunts the book: Could they have guessed that he was planning to kill himself? And that question begets another, equally unanswerable: If they did guess, would that have made any difference in the outcome?
The genius of this kind of fragmented form is that it at once creates a sense of distance and a sense of intimacy. With such an emotionally-fraught topic, there is the danger of waxing sentimental, of making the dead friend mythical and larger-than-life. The form of this book avoids these traps. Ironically, the seemingly cold academic or scientific style of the alphabetized entries makes the story seem more intimate, not less. It shows the author trying to grasp at reality without wanting to sugar-coat it. It shows her trying to understand something she admits she will never understand.
With such an emotionally-fraught topic, there is the danger of waxing sentimental, of making the dead friend mythical and larger-than-life. The form of this book avoids these traps.
I’m fascinated by the way readers can create a coherent narrative out of fragments. As readers, we can fill in much that is left out. We can read between the lines. We can live with leaps and jumps, gaps and white spaces. In fact, as a reader I prefer this kind of writing. It lets me into the story, involves me as a co-creator and accomplice, forces me to engage with the words on the page as if they were my own. Often I’m bored by footnotes and cross-references, but I found myself in this book following the trails they offered, back and forth across the pages of the book, forward and backward. I wanted to solve the riddle of Joel’s death as much as Aldrich does, and I found myself being drawn ever more deeply into the story’s many strands, twists, turns, dead ends, and passageways.
It’s particularly difficult to write about suicide, since the main character, the one who has died, seems to be a blank spot in the middle of the tale. How can you tell the story of blankness? How can you narrate nothingness? What does it mean to start a story at the story’s end?
The more Aldrich explores Joel’s life and death, however, the more she discovers—along with the reader—that the edges surrounding the blankness have infinite stories to tell, meanings to impart, and directions to travel. The edges become a story. The shards become a life.