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Searching for Him

By (September 1, 2017) No Comment

What We Lose
By Zinzi Clemmons
Viking, 2017

Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel What We Lose was initiated by grief. When Clemmons was in graduate school at Columbia – completing her MFA – her mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Clemmons moved back home to help her father care for her dying mother, and subsequently abandoned the novel she was working on to write about her mother’s deadly illness instead.

Grief can be a powerful creative furnace indeed, and Clemmons is hardly the first author determined to transform personal loss into art. Memoirs like A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates, Julian Barnes’ Lessons of Life and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights: they were all written after the death of a loved one. Nor is Clemmons the first writer who chose the death of a parent as the topic for their literary debut. Paul Auster’s first book, The Invention of Solitude, for example, is a two-part contemplation about the death of his father.

But whereas these authors have all turned to memoir, Clemmons decided to fuse reality – her mother’s illness and death – with a fictional character, a young woman called Thandi, and add a fictional plot: While Thandi’s mother is dying from breast cancer, the book follows the young woman’s life, before and after the fatal diagnosis: from her childhood quarrels with her mother about her hair and her friendship with Aminah, “the only other black child” in school, to her college-years and her work for a public health agency. On a business trip to Portland, she meets Peter, gets pregnant, and the two marry, somewhat hastily, shortly after Thandi’s mother dies. But the relationship doesn’t last, leaving Thandi not only with the grief for her dead mother but with a failed marriage and a young child.

Even though Clemmons claims that Thandi’s story is fictional, her persona is highly autobiographical and the loss of a mother to breast cancer is not the only trait Thandi shares with the author. To give just a few examples: Like the author, Thandi grew up in the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia. Like the author, Thandi is the daughter of a “coloured” South African mother and a black American father. And like the author, Thandi struggles with her “in-between”-race. In effect, Thandi shares so many traits with the author that it’s questionable whether the book is indeed a work of fiction. But maybe that was the intention.

Thandi’s story is told in a fragmented, nonlinear narrative, jumping back and forth between her mother’s illness and Thandi’s life as a child, a student, a wife, and finally, a divorced mother. A fragmented structure with the inclusion of (real or fictionalized) newspaper clippings, photos and such is obviously quite the rage nowadays, appealing to debut authors. Novels like Weike Wang’s Chemistry and Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong as well as Nell Stevens’ memoir, Bleaker House are just three recent examples in which these devices are also employed. The question remains, though, whether the fragmentation and time jumps serve a purpose. In Clemmons’ book, the structure she chose wasn’t dictated by the characters or the story, but was due to her inability to write longer pieces during her mother’s illness. “The only time and energy I could muster resulted in that very short form,” Clemmons said in a recent interview with Apogee. “I just ended up keeping those pieces and stitching them together, and a fictional narrative arose.”

No wonder, then, that the book often feels ‘stitched’ together indeed, like an arbitrary conglomerate of vignettes without any organic flow. On the positive side, the fragmented structure frees Clemmons from the confines of, say, a well-defined plot, and instead allows her to briefly touch on a multitude of hot-button issues, like religion, race, sex, national identity and politics, without exploring them in depth. To illustrate these topics, Clemmons includes short musings about a variety of subjects – ranging from Obama’s inauguration to the wives of serial killers – as well as blog posts, graphs, and pictures, lengthy quotes from Obama’s memoir and half a dozen pages of newspaper articles on Winnie Mandela’s court-case. But except for the leaflet, titled ‘What We Lose: A Support Guide,’ which Thandi receives from the grief counselor after her mother’s death and which is copied into the novel, it is often impossible to find a reason for the added trivia.

As for the topic of race, the novel starts out interesting enough with Thandi expressing her views on African American life:

To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap video’s, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours. Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson. Martin Lawrence, Michael Jordan, Halle Berry. Denzel Washington. We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational. It was a freedom synonymous with democracy, with political freedom – with America itself. It was rarified, powerful.

Photo by Nina Subin

This naivety leaves plenty of possibilities for character development and reflection. And indeed, after the death of Thandi’s mother, and after the father of her best friend Aminah has succumbed to a heart attack, it seems that the book might gain some depth. Thandi starts to wonder about the correlation between race and age of death; she feels “a mortal disadvantage”, even though she and Aminah are “well off” and they don’t have to worry about “gun violence or diabetes or obesity”.

But the numbers are what they are: Out of all the people my age whom I know, one white friend has lost a parent. Out of Aminah’s friends, who are mostly black, four. Aminah is my closest black friend, and each of us lost a parent. After the death of Amina’s father, I begin to awake to those statistics, knowing them to be more real than they have ever been in the past.

Clemmons includes a graph to emphasize these musings, and to show how much Thandi grapples with the impossibility of rationalizing and explaining her mother’s death. This could have been the beginning of a deeper exploration of the topic but after these initial thoughts, the subject is abandoned and Thandi never mentions it again. The same holds true for the other topical issues included in the book: They are briefly mentioned but rarely does the book have more to offer than superficial remarks or buzzwords.

Even more bland is the fictional path that follows Thandi’s development from a young girl to a grown woman and a wife and mother. Again, the theme that Clemmons choses sounds promising, albeit rather old-fashioned. Thandi’s life story is driven by the search for love:

The one true love that would define me as much as my career and my personality. He would be a part of me, and we would come together and make another part. The picture slightly wavered over the years, – at times I convinced myself that I would be ok alone, or with several partners; for some period, my husband was a wife. But it always came back to this picture: one partner, for the rest of my life.

In search for ‘the one’, we meet a string of boyfriends from high school to college and university. The way Thandi describes her romantic encounters often reads like the script for an episode of Sex and the City, but unfortunately without the humorous undertone. Like when Thandi meets Peter, the man she will later marry:

He told me he was thirty-three, seven years older than me. I repeated the Elijah Muhammed teaching my father told me, that the ideal age for a woman should be one half the man’s age, plus seven years. He smiled with one side of his mouth, and sat forward in his chair. I knew that I had him.

Or when she visits Peter in his Portland home for the first time:

My mother taught me how to roast a chicken to succulent moistness inside and crispinesss outside. She taught me that men don’t always need, but they love, a woman who can cook and keep house.

Even though Thandi notices the sexism in her mother’s words, she doesn’t seem to question the validity of the advice when she tries to impress Peter with a home-cooked meal:

When he goes to out for work on my third night, I take the chicken out of the fridge, wash it, and pat it dry. I load it into a suitable baking pan. My hands shake as I grease the skin with olive oil and rub salt and pepper all over the body. My knife wriggles as I cut the lemon in half and squeeze citrus over the bird.

Thandi’s view of men is clearly determined by her fear of being left alone, a fear that is not limited to her lovers. When her mother becomes so sick that she is barely able to leave the bed, Thandi wonders what will happen when things get even worse:

Because my father is a man and relatively young, a part of me was scared that he would leave. That was always the fear with men. I suppose this part of the not talking, the not crying. I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge the horror we were living in, it somehow wouldn’t be as bad. And he would stay.

For the most part, Thandi continues to talk in a jumble of trivialities and stereotypes. Of course, the problem is not that Clemmons portrays her main character as naïve or dependent or prejudiced, nor that Thandi acts in ways we would consider foolish. Yes, Thandi’s life plan might seem ridiculous to a 21st century-reader and it is indeed hard to believe that a young talented woman from a privileged background would go to college and university, start a career, and in the end, would still only want to find true love. But novels often have a main character whose views we find questionable or even abhorrent, and when it is done well, when the character is plausible and ‘real’, this only adds to the quality of the book.

The problem is that Thandi never rises above the cliché. Her eagerness to find love might have been endearing, but instead, she remains flat and one-dimensional, a cardboard figure uttering platitudes about the failure of her marriage that seem to come straight out of a self-help book, even though they are presented as earth-shattering revelations:

Love and marriage are completely unrelated enterprises. Marriage bears as little resemblance to love as competing in the Olympics does to your afternoon jog. Sometimes I think with regret of how our love might have grown if we hadn’t driven a pregnancy, then a marriage – like two speeding 18-wheelers – straight into it.

The best parts of the book are those in which we see Thandi caring for her sick mother. For the first time, her desperation becomes real and palpable. Like when she furiously cleans out the refrigerator, in an attempt, not only to keep herself busy, but to help her mother survive:

I restocked the fridge with healthy foods: fruits, vegetables, yoghurts, soy milk, probiotic this and that. When it was done, and the fridge was filled with vibrant colors and smelled of Lysol, I felt lifted, hopeful. I understood then, awash in unfiltered refrigerator light, that this was how I was going to cure my mom, with whole grains and elbow grease.

Or when she describes her mother’s unbearable pain towards the end of the illness:

When the pills weren’t enough anymore, her doctor put my mother on a morphine drip. She started sleeping more hours than she was awake, and she couldn’t tell us whether she was hurting anymore. All we could do was guess if she was suffering by the depth and frequency of her breath, by the restlessness of her limbs. And then, all we could do was push a button on a little machine, releasing a tiny burst of medicine, and hope that it helped her.

And after her mother’s death, there are even moments in the novel that are quite touching. For example, when Thandi remembers the smell of her mother’s cooking and or when she cleans out her mother’s closet. These passages, scattered here and there throughout the novel, are so scarce, though, that they only give the faintest hint of what the book might have been. The remainder is a hodgepodge of grand ideas that unfortunately fails to exceed the level of banality.

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Britta Böhler teaches legal ethics at the University of Amsterdam and is the author of the novel The Decision.