Virginia Woolf took her greatest risks as an artist in 1930. Fresh off the success of Orlando and To The Lighthouse, she embarked on The Waves, a more experimental, more fluid novel than her previous works. (She describes it in her diary triumphantly as “my first book in my own style.”) If The Waves marked an invigorating period of self-expression for Woolf, the process of writing it—and editing it—was nonetheless taxing. (“Never,” she laments, “have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”) In an entry dated April 11th, 1931, Woolf, who was balancing a few writing projects at the time, complains about revision: “I am so tired of correcting my own writing… And the cramming in and the cutting out… But I have no pen—well, it will just make a mark. And not much to say, or rather too much and not the mood.”
Taking Woolf’s phrase as its title, Durga Chew-Bose’s new book of essays is as much about the process of writing as the personal subjects it examines. Montreal-born and of Bengali descent, Chew-Bose covers a lot of territory in two-hundred pages, meditating on everything from Calcutta to Build-A-Bear, and everyone from Annie Baker to Allen Iverson. Throughout her wide-ranging debut, she is constantly zooming in and out, noting that “writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more.” If her style is most akin to that of a contemporary writer like Maggie Nelson, there are also shades of Woolf in Chew-Bose’s prose. In her own spin on Woolf’s essay, “Death of the Moth,” Chew-Bose recalls a childhood memory in which a dead animal appears one morning in her family’s swimming pool: “Stupid squirrel, I thought while brushing my teeth, staring at its fig-shaped body floating facedown.”
Chew-Bose’s talent for vivid description is evident throughout her 14 essays (the first of which, “Heart Museum,” takes up nearly half the book). She is particularly adept at illuminating the world of her past. The author remembers her grandmother, Thama, as “the sort of woman who is so obstinate that even the knot in her silk scarf looks stubborn, like a bulb unwilling to blossom.” More humorously, her recollection of a first kiss gone awry (“I tasted a fleecy tuft in my teeth. Wool from my glove… had hooked onto my braces.”) is deliciously palpable in its precision.
For all their merits, however, Chew-Bose’s images have a way of fading too quickly. They never quite cohere into a complete picture. Perhaps she intends as much: the writer’s thoughts wandering freely (“losing focus and winning it back”) to achieve an authentic stream of consciousness. To the book’s credit, it does read like a true thought process, a swift succession of “miniature awakenings.” And yet, despite these triumphs, I’ll admit that I struggled with paragraphs—or even entire pages—that can appear “incongruous, random, and without incident, like found footage.”
If one theme loosely connects all these essays, it’s what it feels like to be a “first-generation kid.” Chew-Bose’s work is most compelling on this topic. Extrapolating from her own experience, she writes that
to be first-generation means acquiescing to a lasting state of restlessness. It’s as if you’ve inherited not just your family’s knotted DNA but also the DNA acquired from their move, from veritable mileage, from the energy it took your parents to reestablish their lives.
Though Chew-Bose does not devote many pages to her parents, their portraits are absorbing, as is the matter-of-fact detailing of their divorce. Similarly affecting is her description of “growing up brown in mostly white circles.” In “Tan Lines,” she looks back on the summers of her youth: “It was as if my white friends were wearing their tanned skin—bathing in it—as opposed to living in it. The thrill of becoming temporarily dark was, for them, an advantage.” She observes how a suntan can serve as “a mark, in some cases, of status.” Chew-Bose is finely attuned to such subtle gradations and their greater impact.
Other passages are less sharp. The author again reflects on her upbringing:
But memorizing the Bruegel or the cover of Said’s book was part of my practice formed early to repossess. Or to confuse repossession with the distraction it allowed. Zeroing in and slingshoting far were tantamount. For a girl so alert, I was absent. For a girl so AWOL, my insides were a microcosm of raw materials. Or rising sea levels. It really could be either. It’s as though I miscarried all that glee we are entitled to in childhood. At picnics, I was impatient to wipe the sticky off my fingers. Honeydew was a drag.
The author surfaces no shortage of interesting material here, but how is the reader to make sense of this litany? Is the disorder meant to symbolize—or serve as “microcosm” for—the confusion of girlhood? What, exactly, is tantamount to what? On the one hand, there is the weighty matter of repossession. On the other, melon. Chew-Bose’s images glimmer, but some of her sentences sit beyond my ability to grasp them.
Even if Too Much and Not the Mood is somewhat inconsistent, I always trust the voice of this book. Astute and accessible. The smart friend. “I’m still doubtful my stories possess a clear point,” Chew-Bose writes, and I want to reply, Ok, but do they have to? Who says that writing must carry a singular message? Maybe what’s more important than the point is pointedness; it’s “the cramming in and the cutting out”—to borrow from Woolf—that yields the keenest language. Chew-Bose’s most memorable lines are of this variety: piercingly insightful and crisp. “Inheritance has never simply been what trickles down through traditions,” she writes, “but is also the work required to disallow how those traditions fade.”
Ben Purkert‘s first poetry collection, FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in March 2018. His writing appears in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Agni and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a novel. You can find links to new work on Twitter at @BenPurkert.