Thursday, October 19, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Zviane's Going Under

The melancholy at the heart of Zviane's in For As Long As It Rains is magnified in her previous book, Going Under. The fleeting moments of pleasure and connection in the former are offset by the deep sense of loneliness and isolation felt by its unnamed protagonist. That isolation and sense of total abjection is the primary focus of and it's a potent distillation of existential despair. It is as potent a document of depression that I've ever read. 

The story follows a young woman involved in a job surrounding the classical music industry. The book opens with the moment where she feels like she's "going under"; in other words, when a totally debilitating depression is about to pull her into its grip. The book goes into very little detail about that period, in part because she implies that there is little to say: crying, being unable to move or do anything, barely being able to eat. Existing, not living. 

Instead, Going Under talks about when she "gets better." Functional. Able to work and go out in public. What makes the book so devastating and so barbed is the way Zviane gets at just how tenuous this state is and how "better" does not mean "well" or "good." In fact, in some ways, it's even worse, as the palpable concern people had about you fades as they no longer have to think about your problems. Indeed, others become a drain because the only thing worse than indifference is the feeling that people are talking about you behind your back. 

Zviane's storytelling is sharp. The relentless use of grayscale shading in For As Long As It Rains is largely absent here, as the extensive use of white negative space ironically makes the story feel more repressive, not breezier. Zviane also doesn't fill in faces, which includes the story's protagonist. She smartly understands the reader will fill them in, much as we fill in the expressions and emotions of those around us that we don't really want to know more about. Zviane also uses a clever second-person narrative style that's built around faux-omniscience; she is constantly telling the reader what's going to happen to all of the people around her, including when and how they will die. Of course, this isn't a true device, as a woman she claims earlier in the book she never sees again pops up at the end and winds up triggering a particular trauma that Zviane had clearly thought she had left behind. 

The climax of the book is a look at what happened right before her massive depressive breakdown. Fighting her depression and sense of worthlessness, she willed herself out of bed to go see a lecture she had organized from a famous musicologist. She stopped just before she went in, worried that everyone would comment about her being too sick to work, but not too sick to see the lecture. Getting caught up in that trap is what sent her under, and being given an opportunity to see the lecturer in the present day led to her detecting "that smell of water again." There is a sense that the only thing worse than being seen is not being seen, and the protagonist can't bear either one but knows that isolation is a killer. However, Zviane leaves the reader wondering if connection is even possible at all, and if we should even bother trying. It's bleak and harrowing, and Zviane's crisp, precise linework boldly captures this sense of despair. 

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