Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity . . . Even more impressive is her skill at bending crisp, clear language into shapes that illustrate the shifting logic of the disastrous, keeping the reader oriented amid continual upheaval . . . The essays often seem uncannily to anticipate circumstances that the author simply couldn’t have known about: They have a clarity and prescience that imply a sort of distant, retrospective view, like postcards sent from the near future.” Alexandra Kleeman, The New York Times
“Nimble . . . Gabbert studies our atomized and vulnerable capacity for perception with whetted eloquence: Her essays, vigorous in their intellectual pursuit, travel across vast and varied territory . . . but never at the expense of thematic cohesion. Cumulatively, this work lays bare the intractable chasm between what we fear and what we understand. How we look at disasters and how we commit them to memory reveal our fettered perception, and by extension, the fickle, mutable edges of our empathy.” Rachel Vorona Cote, The Nation
"Gabbert’s wide-ranging essays span history, scholarship, pop culture, and literature with both nuance and incisiveness. They’re the kind of essays that don’t only teach you things, they leave you thinking harder and deeper about what it means to live in this world." Lincoln Michel, BOMB
“Absolutely stunning . . . [Gabbert] peers behind the curtains of mortality and time to explore the ways that memory and story either lull us into complacency about moral evil or allow us to embrace impending death . . . The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times.” Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage
"Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory is one of those joyful books that send you to your notebook every page or so, desperate not to lose either the thought the author has deftly placed in your mind or the title of a work she has now compelled you to read. The essays encompass sickness and trauma, anesthesia and memory, politics and political apathy, but owing to the force of Gabbert’s attention, the book remains determinedly cohesive. Written before COVID-19 altered all our lives so irretrievably, it is also a work of uncanny prescience."
Robin Jones, The Paris Review (staff pick)
"Gabbert’s essays feel incredibly relevant . . . In a culture where so many of us are hurtingspiritually, mentally, and physicallyGabbert’s words invite us to feel our pain . . . Just as a massage leaves us feeling sore but also better, her work challenges us to see our collective suffering as one in which we have some personal responsibility for addressing. . . It is almost chilling to read certain sections of the book . . . Gabbert brings the problems to our attention, acknowledges she’s in the same boat with us, and quietly challenges us to respond."
Lindsey Weishar, Ploughshares
"Searing . . . In shattering essays, Gabbert explores if and how and why certain threats register more than others, and how even seemingly immutable facts are subject to spin from our imprecise recollections. There’s a chapter on pandemics, and yes, it is chilling."
"Gabbert is that most valuable thing, a poet who is good at research; her details convince, and her style inveigles. Succeeding pieces about Chernobyl, the Challenger and Columbia explosions, the shocking 2016 election, and other examples all reinforce her pointincluding her rather detailed anticipation of a viral pandemic."
Phil Christman, Plough
"Elisa Gabbert’s essays are always worth reading."
"Deeply contemplative but accessible . . . Whatever the chosen topic, Gabbert’s essays manage to be by turns poetic, philosophical, and exhaustively researched. This is a superb collection."
"In her second collection of nonfiction, poet Gabbert moves fluidly from disaster to dislocation to political upheaval, offering a kind of literary road map to our tumultuous era . . . The idea hereas in all the essays in this nuanced bookis that consciousness is conditional, and we can understand ourselves only in pieces. A fine collection from a poet who seems equally comfortable in prose."
"Provocative [and] searching . . . These deeply researched, prophetic meditations question how the world will endif indeed it willand why we can’t stop fantasizing about it."
"Absolutely stunning . . . Gabbert candidly asks startling and unsettling questions about our view of human nature and the ways we are often complicit in the suffering of others. With the world teetering on the brink of the political, social, environmental and medical abyss, The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times."
Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage
"If it seems that the world is falling apart, and you think you might be losing your mind, this book is here to reassure you: it is, and you are. There can be no better companion in these bewildering times than the crystalline mind of Elisa Gabbert; she delivers the bad news with the ardor of an aria and the rigor of a clinical trial."
J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River
"Amid impending disasters too vast even to be perceived, what can we docognitively, morally, and practically? Gabbert, a tenacious researcher and a ruthless self-examiner, probes this ultimate abstraction in her essays, goes past wordless dread and comes up with enough reasoned consideration to lead us through. Do you feeland how can you notas if your emotional endurance is exhausted by horrors already well underway? Then you should read this book."
Sarah Manguso, author of The Guardians
"The Unreality of Memory fearlessly entertains taboo thoughts, but with the unaffected honesty of intimacy rather than the attention-seeking of a gadfly. Gabbert has the magical ability to make an essay feel like a best-ever conversation with a best friend, the kind of conversation that changes the way you think about things forever. Wildly fun and casually brilliant, this book will make you feel happier while you're reading it and smarter once you finish."
Sandra Newman, author of The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done
“Terror, disaster, memory, selfhood, happiness . . . leave it to a poet to tackle the unthinkable so wisely and so wittily. A work of sheer brilliance, beauty and bravery.”
Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less
"Examining disasters both man made and natural, Gabbert's essays perform a beautiful autopsy of our fears, showing us what it means to exist in a time of eternal apocalypse. The Unreality of Memory is breathtaking in its scope and thought and captivating prose. This is a necessary and vital handbook for anyone experiencing the existential and not-so existential dread of everyday modern life."
Lyz Lenz, author of God Land
“This subtle, deft exploration of catastrophesfrom Titanic and 9/11 to climate change and the present disaster that is American politicsis exactly the book we need in 2020. Elegantly structured and weirdly comforting, The Unreality of Memory brilliantly articulates our anxieties, fears, and wishes for destruction.”
Leigh Stein, author of Self Care
“I want to say Elisa Gabbert is a writer’s writer, because of what I hope that implies about her command of the language, her subtle experimentation, her thought-provoking sentences about a surprising range of subjects. But then will only writers read this? So instead I’ll say Elisa Gabbert is a writer everyone needs to read; her orderly, elegant essays are the perfect counterbalance to our current chaos culture.”
Amber Sparks, author of And I Do Not Forgive You
“Elisa Gabbert is one of my favorite writers, but how I wish her new book wasn’t so timely! I mean this as the highest praise: I had to go lie down in between essays.”
Austin Kleon, bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist
In her second collection of nonfiction, poet Gabbert moves fluidly from disaster to dislocation to political upheaval, offering a kind of literary road map to our tumultuous era.
In the epilogue the author writes, “it feels like a suspended emergency—like the specious present has been extended in both directions. Now feels longer.” How do we read such a reflection without thinking about this current moment? Yet Gabbert began the book in 2016, so the narrative is haunted by the specter of the president rather than the specter of the pandemic—although the two are, of course, intimately related. For the author, the key question is how to remain present and connected, how not to turn away from the disruption of the world. To frame her inquiry, she divides the book into three parts, the first about disaster (human-made and otherwise), the second about memory and self-perception, and the last about exhaustion and social conditioning. Her questing, restless intelligence is what holds the essays together. “Real life is not like fiction,” she insists, citing Errol Morris. We can never know enough, and usually, we are at the mercy of what we don’t know. Gabbert makes that explicit in her writing, which is digressive and discursive, showing its bones. “The Great Mortality” begins with a subtle change in the author’s ability to taste, which she thought was viral, before shifting into a series of reflections on contagion and apocalypse. In “The Little Room (or, The Unreality of Memory),” Gabbert uses the memory of her grandmother’s den to provoke a wide-ranging examination of memory and its unreliability, ending with a vivid evocation of loss. “It’s hard for me to believe it no longer exists,” she writes, recalling that long-lost home; “it’s not a place I can go to.” The idea here—as in all the essays in this nuanced book—is that consciousness is conditional, and we can understand ourselves only in pieces.
A fine collection from a poet who seems equally comfortable in prose.