I'd been waiting for Ivan Vladislavic's The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories somewhat anxiously since discovering that it would exist. I say anxiously in part because that waiting also entailed hoping that it would, in fact, be what I hoped it would be, though I didn't know quite what that was. (This can be a thrilling but somewhat stomach-tightening process in discovering a book that seems to be just what you were looking for -- I've left a book unopened for a while simply because I'm afraid that it won't speak to me as directly as its title does, or that it won't end up being about what I want it to be about). What I do know is that lately, I've had somewhat of an insatiable appetite for books that are in a roundabout way about writing -- to get at some sort of truth about process, perhaps, or simply to understand what writing is better.
The Loss Library, as lovely a thing open as it is closed with its accompanying illustrations, did not disappoint.
Ivan Vladislavic describes this collection of stories he hasn't written (plus the completed titular story that deals in books his predecessors haven't written) as a gathering of "unsettled accounts" or "case studies of failure". But while I appreciate the soul-baring nature of such statements and can relate to the sentiment, as reader, I felt nothing akin to failure or unsettledness. I would instead describe the collection as being an account of circling things -- ideas, characters, research, inspiration -- in a way that brings them into such a clear focus that, in the end, the fictionalized version needn't exist at all. What exists instead is something I find much more interesting: a map of sorts through the formation of the idea itself.
In The Last Walk, he begins with an idea to write about a writer who dies while walking to his favorite vista in a winter landscape -- a thought inspired by the famous photograph of Robert Walser dead in the snow on his own such walk. In preparing to write the story, he instead finds himself "preoccupied with hats", preoccupied with how a photograph documents a moment (quoting Geoff Dyer), and disappointed to discover a photograph of the same scene from a different vantage point that alters some of the enigma that drew him to the image in the first place. In Gravity Addict, a story idea of a woman who is writing a book called The Art of Falling instead becomes a thought about Don Delillo's account of the World Trade Center collapse. In Mrs. B, his research for a fictionalized account of the Burden Expedition in search of the Komodo dragon leads him to dislike the real people involved so strongly he can't see fit to continue with the project -- leading, then, to this strange and dismal thought:
In a gloomy corner of hell reserved for readers, the damned clutch copies of the books they dislike most. The masters of scholarly misunderstanding and the critics who turned a profit on review copies fight over the armchairs in which no one may sit. Instead, they crouch in the corners, where a little light lingers, trying to decipher the notes on the backs of their hands. Sometimes they open the books they carry and gaze dumbfounded at the space between the lines. The room is lined with shelves and the shelves are crammed with books, more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old, but the damned, who have all the time in the world, are not allowed to touch.
To which I can only say: yeesh.
The more wonderful aspect of this image, though, approaches what is wonderful about this collection of essays as a whole: that image of a room lined with more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old. Doesn't that line make your heart leap a little bit at how much knowledge there is in the world? When you think about that, don't you kind of panic, want to simultaneously absorb everything you can and also move on to the next thing because OH MY GOD THERE'S SO LITTLE TIME FOR ALL THIS STUFF? That's how I feel. That, at its most heartfelt and poetic and urgent moments, is how this book feels. And it is, I think, an honest, lovely, and heartbreaking way to think about not only writing but also reading -- always an expedition, always something of a race against the clock, always an attempt at something, often a desperate one. But nothing beats that feeling when the thing you're trying to trying to describe gets drawn close enough that you no longer feel a need to describe it. The Loss Library is an account of that, over and over. The word "failure" has no place here at all.