Eula Biss’ “Notes From No Man’s Land” is the most accomplished book of essays anyone has written or published so far in the 21st century. If it has not taken up residence in the popular imagination of readers in the same way Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” did in the late 1960s, perhaps it is because we live in a time in which it is more difficult for books to assert themselves with great cultural force in the way they once did, or perhaps because Biss, unlike Didion, has yet to receive the strong support of the systems of power that bring great books to the attention of a broad readership.
But there is still time, and the publication of the audiobook edition of “Notes From No Man’s Land” is one opportunity to wave the flag again, and to say to readers: Pay attention. We live among a literary landscape that is so cluttered with passing next big things that it is possible to miss the truly important things that appear at first glance to be small, but which prove themselves over time to make a lasting home in the memory and moral conscience of their readers.
The primary subject of “Notes From No Man’s Land” is race, but it could be argued that its implicit secondary subject is literary form. Many of the essays find their power in a formal investigation that begins in something planned, and ends in something all the more powerful for being unplanned.
The first and most notable example is the book’s opener, “Time and Distance Overcome,” which begins as a history of the telephone pole. Near the beginning of the essay, Biss writes: “The idea on which the telephone depended — the idea that every home in the country could be connected by a vast network of wires suspended from poles set an average of one hundred feet apart — seemed far more unlikely than the idea that the human voice could be transmitted through a wire.”
In an end note (wisely included in the audiobook edition), Biss tells the reader that she began her research for the essay by performing a search for every instance of the phrase “telephone pole” in the New York Times from 1990 to 1920, and she found 370 articles. “I was planning to write an essay about telephone poles and telephones,” she writes, “not lynchings, but after reading an article headlined ‘Colored Scoundrel Lynched,’ and then another headlined ‘Texas Negro Lynched,’ I searched for every instance of the word ‘lynched’ in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 2,354 articles.”
The essay integrates into itself this dark turn in the research. In its second half, a preponderance of the paragraphs are anchored by some variation of the phrase “a black man was hanged from a telephone pole.” It happened in Lake Cormorant, Miss.; Weir City, Kan.; Brookhaven, Miss.; Danville, Ill.; Lewisburg, W.Va.; Hempstead, Texas; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Longview, Texas; Greenville, Miss.; Purcell, Okla.; Shreveport, La.; Cumming, Ga.; Waco, Texas; Springfield, Ohio; East St. Louis — “everywhere,” Biss writes, “in all but four states.”
Toward the beginning of “Time and Distance Overcome,” Biss lets us hear from Thomas Edison on the subject of the telephone, which “annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.” By the end of the essay, Biss tells us that her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a telephone pole fell. Perhaps, the reader thinks, Biss began to research and write about telephone poles out of a sense of nostalgia or longing for him, a longing that a lesser essayist might have connected shmaltzily with Edison’s talk about bringing the human family into closer touch, and we might have ended up with an essay that was long on comfort, an exercise in the telling of the kind of story we like to tell ourselves about how the world might be, the telephone wires strung from pole to pole used as a metaphor for how time and distance have been overcome between grandfather and granddaughter, a connection made after the manner of AT&T’s old “reach out and touch someone” advertising campaigns.
But, characteristically, Biss chooses instead to force herself, and the reader, to see how American history is also wedded more darkly to that metaphor, and to reclaim the language of comfort on behalf of those for whom there would be no comfort. “When I was young,” she writes, “I believed that the arc and swoop of telephone wires along the roadways was beautiful. I believed that the telephone poles, with their transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious. I believed my father when he said, ‘My dad could raise a pole by himself.’ And I believed that the telephone itself was a miracle. Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”
The rest of “Notes From No Man’s Land” is similarly fearless in its look at what Wendell Berry called “the hidden wound” of American culture. Biss soon turns her attention — and ours — to the question of race in its relationship to biology, to the uses of religion and language with regard to the idea of race, to the history and present of bigotry in the American classroom, to Joan Didion and New York, to race and family social policy, to NAFTA and Mexico, to economics and the idea of whiteness, to racial fears and gang violence, and to how the naming of things keeps some people out and other people in.
The book ends with “All Apologies,” an essay that takes explicit aim at the question of what kinds of conversations all people — perhaps especially white people — might owe history, and whether that conversation ought to land in apology. Toward the end of that essay, she offers a report from the 2001 World Conference against Racism. The United States and Israel walked out, she writes. “Spain issued a statement of ‘deep regret’ over slavery. England did not apologize, for legal reasons. The German foreign minister did not apologize, but he said that recognizing historical guilt could restore ‘dignity that had been stolen.’ The French parliament unanimously acknowledged that ‘the transatlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade, perpetuated from the 15th century against Africans, Amerindians, Malagasies and Indians, constitutes a crime against humanity.’”
In his endorsement of “Notes From No Man’s Land,” Sherman Alexie said, “I fought with this book. I shouted, ‘Amen!’ I cursed at it for being so wildly wrong and right.”
That seems as good a description of the experience of reading it — and, now, of listening to it — as I could imagine. For many readers and listeners, the fighting and cursing Alexie describes will extend over a period of years, because “Notes From No Man’s Land” is the kind of book that rewards and even demands multiple readings. It provokes, troubles, charms, challenges and occasionally hectors the reader, and it raises more questions than it answers. It is strident and brave in its unwillingness to offer comfort, and, unlike all but a handful of the best books I have ever read, it is unimpeachably great.
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