Early in This Brilliant Darkness, the new book of essays and profiles by Jeff Sharlet, we see a photo and short profile of Mike, a 34-year-old night baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. This is his final shift. He’s going to paint the walls of a church, high up on a ladder: “You can’t be afraid up there.” A tear, tattooed by his right eye, is for his son—”who died when he was two months old.”
These moments fill Sharlet’s fascinating, heartfelt book. He has a knack as a writer, as a person, for capturing people in image and word. Sharlet has always been interested in the way the stories we tell shape and reveal the meanings in our lives—with good and bad results (see The Family; and the Netflix series version, for an example of the latter).
Sharlet teaches at Dartmouth College, where he is associate professor of English and creative writing. He is an editor at large for Virginia Quarterly Review, and his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Oxford American, and The New York Times Magazine. The Family, a celebrated Netflix series, was based on his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
We spoke about belief, sharing stories, and bearing witness to this world.
The Millions: Early in the book, there’s a scene of you driving “over the Green Mountains, to Schenectady” to visit your father. It’s a frequent trip, and you almost always drove at night: “It seemed easier, the steep twisting road more likely to belong to me alone; the radio, when I could find a station, less clogged with news and yet more alive with voices. Night shift-voices.” Those voices, you write, believe “in God, or aliens, or blue-green algae.” You wanted to believe “in other people’s nightmares and dreams, projected onto the black night-glass of the car windows.” It’s beautiful writing, and it makes me wonder: now that the book is finished, do you believe in those nightmares and dreams? What do you believe the night does to them, to us, to you?
Jeff Sharlet: I believe in nightmares and dreams the way I believe in God—what matters most about stories, I think, is what people do with them, how they shape our lives. Whether they’re “real” or not matters, too—I’m a journalist, I love that creature we call “a fact”—but I’m moved by the great modernist poet Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The stories we tell with those “real toads,” the facts, are the imaginary gardens in which we live. Night is a fact, but my experience of it, then and now, is the imaginary garden for which I’ve attempted to write a geography. In the book, I write that darkness isn’t the absence of light, it’s the presence of ink, the stuff from which letters and words and stories are made. I’m not such an insomniac anymore—making this book maybe cured me of that—but I still see night in those terms.
TM: Late one night you stop to see Larry, owner of Treasure Center—“a grackle’s shop of shiny pop culture detritus, samurai swords, and Franklin Mint collectibles.” You say his store also has the best “religious kitsch” that you’ve seen in a while, but he doesn’t like that description. You buy plastic hands—”painted pink matte over veiny knuckles and long pointed fingers, as if they’d come from a horror model kit repurposed for prayer”—and when you think of them later, you write the “faith that put them in a glass case” was “as free of irony as I am of the divine.” Here—and elsewhere in your writing—you often come back to God and absence. Why the frequent return to these subjects? Why—if the perceived irony of Larry’s kitsch exists—are you still drawn to belief?
JS: I think of something my writing students sometimes say, about a book or a story dealing with some reality very different from the way they understand their lives. “I can’t really relate to it,” they say. To which I respond: we read, we look, we try to perceive the world because whether or not we can relate to any given reality, it may well relate to us. That is, the story—broadly speaking here, belief—matters to my life whether or not I believe. I’d better try to understand it. But that’s just being pragmatic. I’ve always been drawn to belief as a nonfiction writer because to engage with it you have to reach beyond the stack of facts that comprise ordinary journalism. Who-what-where-when-why does not account for what Larry saw in those prayer hands, which matters as much or more than any kitsch I might perceive.
TM: In one photo, a man is on the ground, spread in front of a gated archway, smothered in birds. It’s an almost impossibly perfect shot: some birds are mid-flight, others scurry toward him, and one faces the camera. Early in the book, you write that phone cameras can capture a state of reality that the technological perfection of more advanced cameras cannot. Phone cameras, you describe, capture “sort of what it looked like, something like what I saw, something like what I felt.” Like so much of This Brilliant Darkness, this is really worth pondering. What is that space between reality and artifice? Is it art? The man smothered in birds—is that moment real?
JS: The pigeon man—he preferred not to use his name—a sort of St. Francis of Dublin, where I met him, is real, and that moment—that snapshot—is as real as any other moment that’s past. The snapshot is its memorial, its echo, its ghost. A friend calls these pictures+words “ghost poems,” and adds, “only, these ghosts show up in photographs.” That feels right to me. The space between reality and artifice—which is, of course, the only means we have to attempt to represent reality—is what we speak of when we speak of documentary art. I’m drawn to work that accounts for the approximation, the mediation of the one who looks and listens and tries to understand. I think there’s a transparency—a hopeful transparency—in recognizing that I can’t tell the pigeon man’s story, or anybody else’s story, any more than I can be a “voice for the voiceless,” an inadvertently arrogant bit of phrasing. These people’s stories, and voices, are their own. What I can share is my story about the moments between us, stories that are made up of bits and pieces of both of us. There’s an idea that empathy is something you extend to another. I don’t think that’s quite right—I think it’s something that happens, usually in brief moments—maybe only the duration of a snapshot, a conversation—between people. Maybe it’s a process of seeing and being seen, that vulnerability like a flickering current between you.
TM: Mary, a 62-year-old woman who lives in a motel, cracks open her door when you knock. “You want to interview me,” she says. “Why? I don’t have any power!” She finally invites you inside. Why did she let you in? Why did people—strangers—talk to you during the years you worked on this book?
JS: Because I asked? I don’t know. As a journalist, with an assignment and a notebook in hand, it’s easy for me to break the fourth wall of daily life. That’s my job. This book was different. I told people I was working on a book, but nobody cared one way or the other about that. I wasn’t on assignment. I found it awkward and embarrassing, sometimes, to approach people who I hoped to talk with often for reasons I myself didn’t yet understand. And those people opened the door, when they did, for as many reasons as there are people in the book. We speak of “taking a photograph,” and some writers thank “subjects” for allowing them to “take their time.” But those manners obscure a much more interesting and often more intimate exchange. I can’t “take” Mary’s photograph, unless I’m sneaking up on her, which I’d never do. For better or worse, we made those images together. Mary wasn’t much interested in them—she’d glance at them—but maybe that was because her contribution—her body, her self—was already so vast. Likewise, I can’t “take” her time. She’s not really my “subject,” I have no authority over her. She opened the door for her own reasons, and this is my story about the time we spent together. Maybe that seems limited, but I don’t think so—I keep coming back to this beautiful line from Leslie Jamison’s brilliant book The Recovering—“the saving alchemy of community.” Leslie’s writing about the recovery community, but I think that alchemy is possible—I think I felt it, anyway—in the smaller exchange of stories that make up this book. This is sentimental, I know, but here I embrace that—there’s a poem in the book my daughter said when she was very little. She’s sort of a quiet current throughout the book—there are ways in which it was written to her and her brother, though they may not read it for years (or ever!). She said: “The night I was born / you were born / we were born / we were born together.” That to me is what the book is about. I think it can be true far beyond the bounds of family.
TM: “Sensation is what’s possible when seeing won’t change anything, when you don’t know enough to bear witness, when all you have is the fact of your eyes, the fact of the camera: a record of things, seen and unseen.” What a fantastic line. Bear witness, seen and unseen, there’s the vocabulary of belief (almost liturgically so). Do you still take photos? What sensation remains now that the book—these stories, these images—is out in the world?
JS: I do still take photographs, though since the heart attack at the end of the book—mine, three years ago—not as many. I’m fully recovered, healthy, I move more than ever, but I do feel sometimes as if even just the fact of my eyes is enough, that the fact of the camera is sometimes more than I need. That line accompanies an image of a burning car, [which I believe] is the same as is on the cover. There’s a body in the car. I was second on the scene; shortly after a young cop arrived. There was absolutely nothing he could do—the car was an inferno. But the next day in the news the police said he had tried to rescue the burning person. That broke my heart a little. I thought that shamed the cop in a way that was terribly wrong, because the undercurrent of that false statement was that somehow he had failed because he had not incinerated himself to recover a body from which any soul was already smoke. I get where the impulse to tell that untrue story comes from, I think. We don’t like to admit the damage done, we’d rather believe it’s never too late than learn how to live with hurt and loss. Bearing witness is, I think, a big part of how we live with hurt and loss. Sometimes when we insist on greater powers than we possess, we obscure powers we actually have. You ask what sensation remains. I think witness remains. The book—originally I subtitled it “a memoir of other people’s lives”—is just a marker of what I saw. Like any book, really. A snapshot. As real as all the other moments that pass and still linger.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jenny Offill, Douglas Stuart, Jeff Sharlet, Amber Sparks, Daniel M. Lavery, and more—that are publishing this week.
Weather by Jenny Offill
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Weather: “A librarian becomes increasingly obsessed with doomsday preparations in Offill’s excellently sardonic third novel (following Dept. of Speculation). Lizzie, a university librarian working in Brooklyn, already feels overwhelmed with guiding her son, Eli, through New York City’s crowded elementary school system without the extra strain of dealing with her addict brother’s constant crises. Mostly happily married to a computer game designer, Lizzie introduces anxiety into her marriage when she takes a second job answering emails for a former mentor who is now the host of a popular podcast about futurism. Fielding questions from both apocalypse truthers and preppers for the coming climate-induced ‘scarcity,’ Lizzie becomes convinced that doomsday is approaching. Her scattered, frenzied voice is studded with arresting flourishes, as when she describes releasing a fly: ‘Quiet in the cup. Hard to believe that isn’t joy, the way it flies away when I fling it out the window.’ Set against the backdrop of Lizzie’s trips to meditation classes, debates with a taxi driver, the 2016 presidential election, and constant attempts to avoid a haughty parent at Eli’s school, Lizzie’s apocalyptic worries are bittersweet, but also always wry and wise. Offill offers an acerbic observer with a wide-ranging mind in this marvelous novel.”
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shuggie Bain: “Stuart’s harrowing debut follows a family ravaged by addiction in Glasgow during the Thatcher era. Agnes Bain yearns to move Shug, her taxi-driving, ‘selfish animal’ of a second husband, and three children out of the tiny apartment they share with her parents in Glasgow in 1981. Shug secures them a council flat, but when they arrive he leaves them in a flurry of violence, blaming Agnes’s drinking. While Agnes’s daughter, Catherine, escapes the misery of Agnes’s alcoholism and the family’s extreme poverty by finding a husband, and her older son, Leek, retreats into making art, Hugh (nicknamed ‘Shuggie’ after his absent father) assumes responsibility for Agnes’s safety and happiness. As the years pass, Shuggie suffers cruelty over his effeminate personality and endures sexual violence. He eventually accepts that he’s gay; meanwhile, Agnes finds some hope by entering A.A., landing a job, and dating another taxi driver named Eugene, but she later backslides. As Shuggie and his mother attempt to improve their lives, they are bound not just by one another but also to the U.K.’s dire economic conditions. While the languid pace could have benefited from condensing, there are flashes of deep feeling that cut through the darkness. This bleak if overlong book will resonate with readers.”
This Brilliant Darkness by Jeff Sharlet
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Brilliant Darkness: “Lives lived in shadows and corners are lit up in these offbeat photo-journalistic essays. Journalist and Dartmouth writing professor Sharlet (The Family) roams several continents, snapping smartphone photos he posts on Instagram and talking to people: night-shift workers at a Dunkin Donuts in Vermont; a far-right gun fanatic in Schenectady, N.Y.; a Ugandan clergyman who’s terrified of a witch’s curse; brother-sister street-junkies in Dublin, Ireland. Most of the pieces are short, evanescent essays, but Sharlet includes longer pieces, including a profile of a homeless African immigrant on L.A.’s Skid Row who was shot to death, unarmed, by police, and a sketch of a mentally fragile New England woman struggling to control her life, her only friend a potted plant named Bandit. Sharlet’s haunting photos accompany clipped, pointilist, but expressive prose that evokes character and tragedy: a New Hampshire arsonist ‘told the police (there were things he wanted them to know) that he used the flag to burn the church, that he tried to burn the children, that he did what he did—and, if they let him go, would do more—because he was angry with God.’ The result is a triumph of visual and written storytelling, both evocative and moving.”
And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about And I Do Not Forgive You: “Sparks (The Unfinished World) impresses with her exceptional collection of wry, feminist stories. ‘A Place for Hiding Precious Things’ is an incendiary retelling of the fairy tale ‘Donkeyskin’ that features a young princess’s escape into contemporary Manhattan from her father’s incestuous desires. A high school girl with a pitch-perfect teen voice lives with her dysfunctional family in a trailer park in ‘Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park’ and is bored with the ‘weird pioneer girl’ that haunts her until the ghost proves herself useful with homework and warding off sexual advances. Climate change and societal collapse set the stage for a woman’s ex-husband’s transformation into a religious despot who builds a giant tower in ‘We Destroy the Moon.’ Some stories smuggle incredible emotional impact into surprisingly few pages, including the haunting, unexplained severing of a friendship in ‘Mildly Unhappy with Moments of Joy’ and a queen who attempts to outrace a rapidly approaching future through a strange form of time-travel in ‘Is the Future a Nice Place for Girls.’ The time management–obsessed father in ‘The Eyes of Saint Lucy’ foists his mistress’s baby on his wife and daughter, leading to a chilling, macabre twist. Sparks’s sardonic wit never distracts from her polished dismantling of everyday and extraordinary abuses. Readers will love this remarkable, deliciously caustic collection.”
Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Untamed Shore: “Fantasy author Moreno-Garcia (Gods of Jade and Shadow) ventures into thriller territory with mixed success in this noir set in 1979 Baja California. Life for 18-year-old Viridiana in the ‘nothing at all’ town of Desengaño has been full of dull, senseless duty that she yearns to escape. When wealthy American Ambrose Allerton—an older man who’s renting a house with his trophy wife, Daisy, and her handsome brother, Gregory—offers Viridiana a summer job to be his secretary, she gladly accepts. But her good fortune doesn’t last. After a drunken Ambrose takes a fatal fall down some stairs, suspicion falls on Daisy and Gregory. After agreeing to lie on their behalf, Viridiana becomes a suspect in Ambrose’s murder. Fueled by her thirst for exotic adventure, she begins a highly charged affair with Gregory, but sordid reality soon catches up with her. Moreno-Garcia’s unsparing delineation of a ferocious land compensates in part for Viridiana’s somewhat unconvincing dreams of Hollywood romance. Fans of the author’s fantasy novels may want to take a pass.”
Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Something That May Shock and Discredit You: “Slate advice columnist Lavery (Texts from Jane Eyre) brings the full force of his wit and literary depth to this genre-bending essay collection. Describing it as ‘memoir-adjacent,’ Lavery intersperses searingly honest passages about his journey as a transgender man with laugh-out-loud funny literary pastiche. In ‘Lord Byron Has a Birthday and Takes His Leave,’ the poet histrionically threatens to die gloriously in Greece to avoid reaching the mortifying age of 40. Sir Gawain tries to escape the sexual hijinks cooked up by Lady Bertilak and the Green Knight in ‘Sir Gawain Just Wants to Leave Castle Make-Out.’ Amid the literary fun, Lavery reflects upon gender identity. Finding the national conversation about transgender people too child-centric—he only realized he was one at age 30—Lavery instead returned to the scriptures of his youth to find himself in ‘stories of transformation… already familiar’ to him. In the most moving chapter, he drops the artifice of humor and lays bare his anguish at severing his relationship with his mother as her daughter, with the two finding solace in the story of Jacob and Esau—two brothers who make peace but not before Jacob changes his name, and thus identity, to Israel. Lavery provides an often hilarious, sometimes discomfiting, but invariably honest account of one man’s becoming.”
Also on shelves this week: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams.