#23 of 2011 ▪ The Outward Room by Millen Brand
I have about two pages of notes about this book, but I’m keeping it short here. As usual, it’s all just me rabidly nodding and sniffling and squealing to Brand’s thoughts, Brand’s characters. As usual, it’s about me belaboring the goodness that is this novel.
I mean, it’s pretty straightforward: our woman—who goes through three different names and identities in the course of this short book—escapes the mental institution she’s stayed in for seven years, flees to New York, meets John, falls in love with John. Tries to re-assemble her life from years and years of depression. Or, cyclic insanity, as she explains to John once. Sadness, overwhelming sadness. Oh, she doesn’t get violent, see. She’s just lost and hopeless.
I can understand her sickness all too well. The breathlessness, the constant undercurrent of It’s Coming Back, the inability to explain, the put-on defiance against the expected rejection of the uncomprehending. The agonizing possibility of hope?
Seven years, plunging again and again into blind struggle and agony and emerging. It was hard to decide which contained greater suffering, the months of black horror, of nothings, or the returning of life. . . She told herself, I’m insane. Periodic insanity, death in her blood. . . She was imprisoned in death.
Is this why I love the book so much? No, that’s not all there is to it, not just that I find it so familiar, and, thus, comforting. No, Harriet’s darkness isn’t just it. Is it our Harriet—as one of her names go—finding love, finding herself? Again, so trite, so useless a description? How to share the awe Harriet inspired in me when, in a store, she sees a pocketbook and says, “I’d like a pocketbook”? How to share my own love for Harriet’s John, that strong, quiet man, with his calloused hands and his cramped apartments and his goodness, and his unshakeable love for Harriet? Ah, to contextualize.
Perhaps, for fun, I’ll write a paper on Brand’s novel. And then, well, show it to my grandchildren. Or my psychiatrist. Excuse me.
I’ll find a way to “properly” talk about this novel—once lost to us. But, for the mean time, this is what I want to say: The Outward Room is now, easily, one of my favorite books. I know I say this a lot, and I know I should be going down on my knees and thanking ye stars for that fact: I really do love this book. If I could eat it, I would, and with ketchup. I suppose that snippet of inanity will do for now.
Millen Brand’s The Outward Room was received from NYRB Classics. Much fluffy thanks all around.
PS: From the afterword by Peter Cameron:
It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books—even books heralded in their time—can disappear so quickly and completely. We like to think that things of enduring quality and worth are separated from the dross and permanently enshrined, but we know that this is not true. Beautiful things are more likely to disappear than to endure. The Outward Room is such a beautiful thing. And like so many literary treasures, much of its beauty is a result of its singularity, its ability to be both so unlike other books and yet so true to itself.