In our Under the Radar segment this month, Lev Raphael talks with WKAR’s Melissa Benmark about a thought-provoking book about grief from an MSU author.
LEV RAPHAEL: This is by Marcia Aldrich who is a professor of English at Michigan State, and it’s called “Companion to an Untold Story.” And it’s a really powerful, brilliant, painstaking book about the suicide of a good friend of hers.
And it’s called a companion because it’s like those books that are companion to the plays of William Shakespeare or companion to Jane Austen. It’s got alphabetical entries, and so her strategy for dealing with the heartbreak and shock of her close friend’s suicide is to step back, and to go through his life, her life, through letters, through memories, through moments, building a portrait of what she didn’t know about him.
And it’s really a pretty stunning book. I don’t think you have to have lost someone to suicide to appreciate it because it’s really a powerful reflection about life and memory.
MELISSA BENMARK: I understand this it’s published through a fairly small press.
RAPHAEL: Yes, the University of Georgia is a smaller press. It’s one of the best university presses. And actually, university presses are where you’re seeing the more accomplished memoirs being published these days.
BENMARK: Is it hard to read? I mean, the subject matter is not easy even if you haven’t lost someone to suicide.
RAPHAEL: I won’t lie. It’s not easy to read. And it’s hypnotic at the same time. So that you’re pulled in, and then you have to stop, and then you’re pulled back in, and then you have to stop. And I think that’s actually a very good thing. Because it makes you consider your own life. It makes you wonder things like “Well, who would be putting together my story if I committed suicide or even if I died? Would anyone put my story together?” It’s working on so many different levels.
BENMARK: How did you find out about this book?
RAPHAEL: I heard about it first because it won a prize. And I actually have lost a friend to suicide, and I found myself entering the book in that personal way because I kept looking at all the gaps. That’s really what she’s expert at identifying. Even though there are so many entries, she’s aware that there are endless gaps.
And the publisher has done something quite brilliant I think, in how the book is formatted. You know how books are usually right justified so there’s a line down the right and everything meets? Well, when a book isn’t right justified it’s called ragged right, and so the text goes in and out. And as I was reading it, I thought, this is the perfect mode to present this material. Because it matches the fragments of her friend’s life, it matches the way in which her friend’s life shattered, and also broke hers.
BENMARK: It sounds like for people who are trying to recover from the suicide of someone close to them, the word that keeps coming up again is questions, questions, questions. Do you feel that this author’s journey, if not answers questions, at least puts a little bit of balm on the questions?
RAPHAEL: I think so, and it couldn’t happen if the writing weren’t so polished, so beautiful. It’s hard to write about a subject like this without being sentimental, but the author succeeds perfectly.