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    Book Tour: The Grip of Time

    A review of Asali Solomon’s The Days of Afrekete, Grace Olmstead’s Uprooted, Pete Davis’s Dedicated, and Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks.

    By Phil Christman

    June 30, 2021

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.

    Time is a trap. This is overtly true for the billions of people who, owing to the present arrangement of things – an arrangement that is surely just and wise and not just a continuing handshake agreement between the stupidest of the powers and the meanest of the principalities – must spend nearly every second surviving. The gig worker, like the peasant farmer, wriggles in time as in a giant’s grip.

    It is also true, in a far subtler way, for the few billion whose circumstances allow them some illusion of control over their own lives. For this second set of people, time can easily be mistaken for a resource. You can strategize about it. You can say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell. The trap is that this is true, to a point, but the location of that point never stops moving. I keep missing it.

    It is terrifyingly easy to miss. In Asali Solomon’s new novel The Days of Afrekete, the two main characters wander through adulthood in a soft confusion, feeling they were meant for something better. One of them has pursued worldly success, while the other, to her great credit, has evaded it, but they both seem to feel oppressed by a sense of wasted potential, a lost chance somewhere.

    The novel is modeled on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. (That novel will soon be published in an edition annotated by the critic Merve Emre, whose productivity in recent years suggests a mastery of her own time that I shall never achieve.) The Days of Afrekete tells the story of a Black woman born into the working class, Liselle Belmont, who has, like Woolf’s far more privileged Clarissa Dalloway, settled into respectability after a youthful interlude in bohemia. Her white husband, Win, like Woolf’s Mr. Dalloway, has gone into politics, but unlike Mr. Dalloway, he is a failure, he may have broken federal election laws. At least the FBI thinks so, which is why it besieges Liselle with phone calls and secret visits. The novel takes place on the night of a thank-you dinner party that Liselle – well, mostly her housekeeper – is throwing for the supporters of her husband’s unsuccessful primary campaign. As she goes about her preparations, Liselle muses about Selena, the woman she loved when the two of them were at Vassar in the nineties. (In the same way, Clarissa Dalloway’s youthful memories of Sally Seton, and of her old lover Peter Walsh, continually intrude on her day.) Selena is unable to settle down to a productive post-college existence, because she can’t stop thinking about the brutality of the world. Liselle worries that, in marrying the bland and compromised Win, she has missed the point of her life; Selena thinks that everyone has. She, in turn, needed to devote herself to some emergency, only there are so many emergencies that she cannot choose one.

    Part of the emotional power of Woolf’s novel comes from the way she honors Clarissa’s regrets, her desire to find, in the memories of Peter and Sally, the missing point. But the greater truth of Mrs. Dalloway comes from the fact that Woolf doesn’t put all her thumbs on that side of the scale; you finish the book feeling that such regrets would have followed Clarissa down any path, that unlived lives are the cost of, not the alternative to, a lived one. Solomon seems to want to reduce this story to a simpler parable about the dangers of selling out. There is really nothing to choose between Selena, poor as she is, and Win and his awful family, who seem less like characters than like allegorical stand-ins for the pathologies of the White upper crust. Solomon’s earlier novel, the brilliant Gen X bildungsroman Disgruntled (2015), felt more full of life; even the worst-behaved characters in that darkly comic book were fun to read about. This may simply mean that Solomon, like any novelist, does best when she writes about people she likes – reading the novel, I kept being haunted by the possibility of a better novel that focused mostly on Selena, or on Liselle’s disgruntled mother, or on various background characters, such as Reverend Chris, a vividly drawn dinner guest. (If every life is haunted by its unlived twin, every novel is haunted by an unwritten one.) But the sentence-by-sentence wit and observation of Disgruntled are present as well in Days of Afrekete, and they are enough to make anything Solomon writes worth seeking out.

    long exposure photo of stars

    Photograph by Marek Piwnicki

    Grace Olmstead’s memoir Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind (excerpted in Plough) is similarly haunted by an as-yet unlived life. Olmstead wonders whether she should, like the young Wendell Berry, return, after early success as a writer living in a cultural capital, to the farm community where she grew up. So she travels back and forth from her home near the imperial center, Washington, DC, to Emmet, Idaho, and tries to understand the forces that have marked out Emmet, like so many towns, for demographic and economic decline. She finishes the book still suspended between possibilities. Pete Davis’s Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in a World of Infinite Browsing also makes a case for focusing one’s energies and limiting one’s options. Davis argues that if we’re missing the point of our lives, it’s partly from sheer distraction. Settling down to any place, any task, any code, would be better than the continual flitting among them that our economy and our gadgets make possible.

    Unlike many writers who praise The Local and The Small and The Heartlandish on principle, Olmstead forces herself to acknowledge the murder and oppression that accompanied the White settlement of the American West, and the ways that small towns and small farms have been and still are pressed into the service of racist agendas. (She even spares a citation for Sarah Taber, the farm-workers’ advocate whose animadversions on the cult of the family farm would strike many readers of Berry as borderline blasphemous.) Her book is well-researched, conscientious, and compassionate; she gives the impression of being a Christian with conservative inclinations who refuses to let the second thing take priority over the first.

    Davis’s book is also careful and thorough. It is written, in some ways, like a business book – he likes to give lists and copyrightable descriptive epithets. (“Change needs dedicated gardeners, not just clever engineers.”) Somehow he can do this without the irritating blitheness that almost always accompanies these rhetorical habits. As I read the book, I began to feel as though Davis were a kind of spy, using the language of a capitalist world, the very world that makes dedication harder to practice, to argue for something radically different. He uses the enemy’s codes against him. Both books are highly informative and winningly earnest. Olmstead at one point writes about the trails that the long, disciplined habits of her grandfather have worn into his carpet; they symbolize a kind of devotion and rectitude that she worries her more cosmopolitan existence makes impossible. Maybe the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree.

    I have spoken slightingly of business books; the perceptive reader will notice that I have also spoken of them familiarly. Like many people whose adult lives consist of a constantly renewed assault upon their own flakiness, I read productivity books in the avid, secretive, shamefaced way that some people read erotica. Their appeal for me is, at this point, essentially aesthetic. I know most of the tips and best practices they have to offer by now, and that I will apply these at times and ignore them at others, and that the thing causing me to take or ignore these books’ advice is not subject to the books’ influence at all. It’s that large, stratified thing, the product of so many influences that it sometimes feels less under my control than any part of me, that I call my will. When I read the productivity gurus, I enjoy briefly the mental picture of a version of me who does only the important things, the hard, difficult, and fulfilling tasks. I enjoy the mental picture of my life as a table sparsely, perfectly arranged. So I read the books; I indulge the fantasy; and then I go back to my messy life, feeling the trap of time closing ever more firmly. My relationship to these books, then, is not only aesthetic but neurotic: an embarrassing repetition, a cycle that only speeds up.

    The writer Oliver Burkeman used to belong to the productivity-industrial complex. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals is his effort to break free from it, and to help readers liberate themselves as well. Its main message is that you’re going to die. Specifically, if you live into your eighties, you still have something like the titular budget of weeks. It doesn’t seem like that many. Therefore – and here Burkeman sounds a great deal like Davis and Olmstead – you should not waste much time trying to “optimize” your life. Making some choices and living with them will serve you better than spending your whole life trying to find perfect ones. The cultural obsession with productivity, meanwhile, is an attempt to transcend death, and the choices that death forces us to make. If we can infinitely increase our productivity, then we never have to choose.

    In lieu of the tips that generally conclude a book like this – and which the dedicated lifehacker long ago learned to skip ahead to, because an efficient person has no time to read entire books – Burkeman concludes with a chapter’s worth of questions to ask yourself, questions so acute that I almost bought another productivity book rather than confront them. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little easily tolerable discomfort? In which areas of your life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing? Only after this does he give the expected list of tips, my favorite of which is “Decide in advance what to fail at.” Burkeman means that you should admit up front, during each season of your life, that there is some area in which you will fail to reach your potential. But it’s consistent with the best insights of Burkeman’s book to say: What you’ll fail at is everything. You will not maximize your potential. You will not escape time’s grip. But neither can time escape God’s grip; and what God intends to make of both you and it is thankfully not up to you to determine.
    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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