After my post in which I complained about the mediocre selection of essays in The Best American Essays 2006, I’ve come across a couple very good ones. One of them is Adam Gopnik’s “Death of a Fish,” which appeared originally in The New Yorker, and which I’d already read there. The essay was good enough to reward a re-reading, and I liked it just as much the second time as I did the first. The essay is about the death of Bluie, Gopnik’s daughter Olivia’s fish; it starts off with these irresistable sentences:
When our five-year-old daughter Olivia’s goldfish, Bluie, died the other week, we were confronted by a crisis larger, or at least more intricate, than is entirely usual upon the death of a pet. Bluie’s life and his passing came to involve so many cosmic elements — including the problem of consciousness and the plot line of Hitchcock’s Vertigo — that it left us all bleary-eyed and a little shaken.
Poor Bluie gets stuck in a fishbowl castle and no one and nothing can get the thing out. The family scrambles to keep Olivia from finding out, and the ten-year old son ponders what it means to be a fish: “Does Bluie know he’s Bluie?” The parents wonder what is going on in Olivia’s mind, and this is what Gopnik concludes:
Olivia loved Bluie because it is in her nature to ascribe intentions and emotions to things that don’t have them, rather as Hitchcock did with actresses. She knows that she is Olivia because one of the things that she is capable of doing is imagining that Bluie is Bluie. Though you read about the condition “mind-blindness” in autistic children, the alternative, I saw, was not to be mind-sighted. The essential condition of youth is to be mind-visionary; to see everything as though it might have a mind. We begin as small children imagining that everything could have consciousness — fish, dolls, toy soldiers, even parents — and spent the rest of our lives paring the list down, until we are left alone in bed, the only mind left.
I love this characteristic of the essay — that it can take a small life event and turn it into an opportunity to reflect on large philosophical issues. The essay can be a way of ordering and shaping life, drawing lines and putting pieces together, connecting large and small, relating the private event to the public concern.
The other essay I liked is Michele Morano’s “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood.” This has a clever structure that does not feel overly clever or gimmicky; Morano takes nine reasons to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish and makes them the outline for her essay, using her failing relationship with her boyfriend as an example to illustrate each of the nine reasons. As she explains the grammar, she explains the relationship. As she explains the grammar, she writes about what can and can’t be said and known, what is certain (the indicative mood) and what is uncertain (the subjunctive). For example:
In language, as in life, moods are complicated, but at least in language there are only two. The indicative mood is for knowledge, facts, absolutes, for describing what’s real or definite. You’d use the indicative to say, for example:
I was in love.
Or, The man I loved tried to kill himself.
Or, I moved to Spain because the man I loved, the man who tried to kill himself, was driving me insane.
The indicative helps you tell what happened or is happening or will happen in the future (when you believe you know for sure what the future will bring).
The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, is uncertain. It helps you tell what you could have been or might be or what you want but may not get. You’d use the subjunctive to say:
I thought he’d improve without me.
Or, I left so that he’d begin to take care of himself.
Or later, after your perspective has been altered, by time and distance and a couple of cervezas in a brightly lit bar, you might say:
I deserted him (indicative)
I left him alone with his crazy self for a year (indicative)
Because I hoped (after which begins the subjunctive) that being apart might allow us to come together again.
Morano’s use of the grammar rules gives the reader some distance from what is a pretty harsh story, and it allows her (her persona) a way of talking about the story that’s not self-pitying or whiny. The distancing tactic keeps the story from sounding melodramatic, but it also increases the power of the reader’s response: the voice of the essay is restrained, held back by the organizing structure, but behind and underneath that restraint is some very powerful feeling.