‘Horror and awe are not incompatible’ [book review]

A review of The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays by Elisa Gabbert

What is disaster and why are we so obsessed with it? This is the question at the heart of Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, a wide-ranging collection of essays exploring individual and collective tragedy, our reaction to events beyond the scope of comprehension, and ‘the ethics of consuming the news’. Quick-witted and often humorous, written in an approachable voice yet based on reams of in-depth research, this is an accessible collection that challenges readers to question how we assess and relate to the world around us.

The Unreality of Memory Elisa Gabbert

As might be expected from a book dealing primarily in disasters, The Unreality of Memory begins with a discussion of some of the most famous tragedies in human history. The sinking of the Titanic, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, the atomic bomb, Chernobyl and Hurricane Katrina all feature in the first section of the book, along with looming threats – the possible Pacific Northwest earthquake, super-volcanoes, climate change – and, in an eerily prescient chapter, the potential for a new superbug or pandemic to develop. (Gabbert began writing these essays in 2017; they were published earlier this year in the USA and in August in the UK.) So far, so classic disaster. In later essays, however, the author widens her net considerably, taking in everything from witchcraft and insomnia to the historical diagnosis of hysteria, our recent obsession with true crime stories and, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

The main thrust of the book is not so much to describe these disasters and their causes – though Gabbert does so, in precise and often moving tones – but to examine how we as onlookers define, relate to and finally remember them; to elucidate what effect (if any) they might have on the way we continue to live. The results, though by no means clear-cut, are at once logical and fascinating, providing fuel for a more engaged and interrogative relationship with the media we consume on a daily basis.

‘Is the world ending?’ Gabbert asks in her closing remarks, and after reading the catalogue of woes leading up to the question, most readers could be forgiven for answering with a yes. Yet, as she argued at an earlier stage, ‘progress is tightly coupled with disaster’: the more we invent, particularly in terms of technology, the more likely it is for disasters – and large-scale ones, at that – to occur. Disasters, too, are often a matter of perspective, and the way we respond to them heavily influenced by our sources of information. One of the most memorable passages in the book involves a brief history of what we know as ‘the news’, with a mention of how Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, once the largest evening newspaper in the USA, ran for a time to seven editions a day, so insatiable was the desire for fresh, up-to-the-minute news. Now, of course, our lives are ruled by the always-on mentality of social media, round-the-clock reporting, film footage and the cameras we carry in our pockets. Is it any wonder, then, Gabbert asks, that we feel disaster is constantly looming? We live our lives in a constant dichotomy: ‘Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.’

Throughout her writing, Gabbert is critical and questioning, yet also hugely compassionate; her struggle to understand her own reactions is evident, and though she might question human ethics or social behaviours, there is never a sense that she is putting herself above the rest of us – only ever among. Though I occasionally found myself wondering whether she was digressing a little too much – her forays into witchcraft and hysteria, for example, were interesting yet initially seemed slightly beside the point – by the time I reached the conclusion I understood where she was coming from. As a collection, The Unreality of Memory doesn’t so much seek to explain as to show: for the onlooker, disaster and its associated memories are both individual and collective, informed by personal experience but also by the way in which these events are shared and stored in cultural memory. It is OK – perhaps even necessary – to be obsessed with disaster, Gabbert seems to be saying. But it is what we go on to do with our experience of it that really matters.

Gabbert herself is comforted by her extensive research into historical disasters – ‘We’re still here, after all,’ she writes – but there is a definite warning tone to her words. A section on ‘compassion fatigue’ explores the dangers of over-reporting, of over-disastering, but it is her comments on climate change that are most chilling of all. Our tendency to sit back and look on in a numb state of shock is great, it seems, as is our ability to wilfully ignore disasters that don’t appear as dramatic or shocking as others. The warming of the earth is a largely invisible disaster, but one without compare – though we may see its effects broken down into smaller, more easily quantifiable disasters, trying to avoid or provide relief following these natural catastrophes cannot tackle the root of the problem. ‘Horror and awe are not incompatible,’ Gabbert notes, but sometimes the scale of the impending horror is too great for us to compute.

Given the events of this year, The Unreality of Memory seems to be particularly well timed. Most of us have been glued to the media recently, but to read this book is to take a refreshing step back, asking how our consumption of the news affects our day-to-day lives and the memories we form. Sharp, witty and filled with a recognisable struggle to understand, Gabbert’s essays are a pleasure to read – and with another US election looming and no end to the pandemic in sight, I hope to be able to see how her thoughts on this subject develop.

The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays by Elisa Gabbert is published by Atlantic Books and available in hardback and digital. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

2 thoughts on “‘Horror and awe are not incompatible’ [book review]

    1. That’s so kind of you, thank you very much! It is a really difficult book to capture, but I loved reading your review as well. You’re entirely right about the sense of connection: so often I recognised my own thoughts and was amazed she’d been able to get down what I feel but can’t always explain.


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