View Cart
Hex Publishers is an independent publishing house proudly specializing in genre fiction: horror, science fiction, crime, dark fantasy, comics, and any other form that explores the imagination. Founded by writers, Hex values both the author and the reader, with an emphasis on quality, diversity, and voices often overlooked by the mainstream.

The Poppies of Terra #26 - Sloane Crosley Is For People

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-03-27 09:00:29

Please be advised, the following piece deals with mourning and suicide.


“All burglaries are alike, but every burglary is uninsured in its own way. On June 27, 2019, at 5:15 p.m., I leave my apartment for one hour and come home to find all my jewelry missing.” So begins the recently published Grief Is For People by acclaimed author Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Cult Classic, and others). On July 27, 2019, exactly one month after the burglary, Russell Perreault, Crosley’s best friend, confidante, and erstwhile boss in the publicity department of Vintage Books hanged himself in his Connecticut home.

Benjamin Franklin popularized the notion that the only certainty in life is “death and taxes,” both of which underwrite suffering; long before him, Buddhists proposed as their First Noble Truth that suffering is inherent in the cycle of existence itself. Throughout Grief Is For People, Crosley accesses, documents, and interrogates her suffering in the compounded wake of her burglary/best-friend’s-suicide with such exquisite exactitude and disarming candor that she attains that paradoxical duality of universalizing particulars. Crosley’s courageous, beautifully written book does not make her story ours–it will always belong to her–but it warmly invites us to become part of hers. 

The book is split up into four sections corresponding to four of the five grief stages (Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression) of the Kübler-Ross model, originally intended to describe the psychological stages of terminally ill patients. Taking the place of Acceptance is a concluding section titled “The Vertical Earth (Afterward).” This is not to say that this phase is absent: Crosley’s entire account can be read as an eloquent negotiation with herself regarding the very feasibility of acceptance. “To mourn the death of a friend is to feel as if you are walking around with a vase,” she writes in the Bargaining section, “knowing you have to set it down but nowhere is obvious. Others will assure you that there’s no right way to do this. Put it anywhere. But you know better. You know that if you put your grief in a place that’s too prominent or too hidden, you will take it back when no one’s looking.”

Crosley accomplishes a number of weighty things with this memoir, a remarkable feat considering its fleet-footedness and brevity. She provides a loving, minutely observed portrait of Russell, who comes across as energetic, passionate about the arts, irreverent, offensive, and complex. Their friendship is palpably rendered. She sketches Malcolm Cowley-esque scenes of New York publishing and book publicity, casting light on those who work tirelessly outside the spotlight to get the word out on new releases. As someone who was close to Russell but not his partner or mother or nephew, she seeks to understand what actions would be appropriate, and stakes out a space for friends to grieve on their own terms. She ventures briefly into descriptive COVID-land. Above all, she captures the rawness of her reaction to Russell’s abrupt death through her own uncompromisingly original, oftentimes witty and darkly humorous voice. “I don’t want to make my way through the coming stages, however ill-defined,” Crosley notes. “I don’t want to become more human for this experience. Whatever level of human I’m at is fine.”

The notion of bargaining is felt particularly strongly through Crosley’s attempts to recover her stolen jewelry, an endeavour that becomes commingled with a metaphysical wish to retrieve her deceased friend. “Human beings are solid things made out of delicate materials. Perhaps this is why we like jewelry as much as we do, because jewelry is our inverse—delicate things made out of solid materials.” We feel for her during her search for solidity. Along the way she offers a number of haunting images and memorable comparisons, such as this: “A sudden loss is not inherently worse than an expected one, but it is more likely to feel like it can be undone. It’s the difference between forgetting your car keys at home and forgetting them on the driver’s seat, where you can still see them. You’re locked out either way.”

As might be expected of a literary person coping with the suicide of a loved one, Crosley seeks some kind of solace in texts like A. Alvarez’s The Savage God and Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast. She revisits Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She quotes Sylvia Plath, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Butler Yeats, references the story “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, whatever serves her purpose. Self-help manuals, on the other hand, bounce off of her. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every self-help book must come out of the gate by differentiating itself from every other self-help book until they all start to sound alike,” she says. Upon consideration, it dawns on her “why they are all so desperate to differentiate themselves and yet can’t outright trash one another, why they are all so legibly diplomatic: It’s because none of their authors have recovered.” 

Reflecting on Russell’s decision to end his life, Crosley avails herself of deep empathy to resist the notion that he was a victim. “The one thought that comforts me during this time is a controversial one: I don’t believe Russell thought he’d lost his argument with life; I believe he thought he’d won it. He no longer saw a place for himself in the world and this was the same as a terminal illness. The illness of aging. The illness of aging as a gay man. The threat of irrelevance, the loss of power, the expansion of indignities, the condition of being alive. All to be nipped in the bud before the symptoms got too gnarly, all to be addressed while he still had a choice.” And yet unanswerable questions inevitably remain. Is it possible for someone to get any sense that a close one is contemplating the end? Crosley delves into this question, and the normalizing assumptions we often carry around about a happiness default, in a passage that strikes me as one of the book’s most vital: “Ideations notwithstanding, I find it hard to believe any suicidal person knows the exact dimensions of what they’re hiding. So why would the rest of us have a superior sense? And who among us is categorically happy? Rather, who among us is categorically happy and tolerable? Who lacks a reason to kill themselves? Reasons are not the problem. Part of the destigmatization of suicide is not framing the desire, or even the flirtation, as exceptional.”

After reading Grief Is For People I thought of Joyce Carol Oates’ wrenching A Widow's Story: A Memoir, in which Oates details the tumble her life took in the aftermath of the unexpected death of Raymond J. Smith, her husband of 47 years. Oates’ sprawling chronicle is more unfettered and breathless, a maelstrom of emotions, while Crosley’s is more composed and narratively agile, sentiments distilled. Oates plunges us into the mental micro-states that comprise disorientation; Crosley humanely organizes its essence. Both books are about grappling with shock and trying to replicate the Brownian motion of consciousness during bereavement. A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis, an excellent and poignant work in its own right, merits mention as a relevant antecedent. 

I don’t think that, generally speaking, suffering–including grief and depression–sparks creativity, but for those who are patient and resigned, and whose curiosity imbues them with an observer’s detached resilience, it does have the potential to strobe visibility upon the mechanisms of cognition. In that raising of awareness about one’s own thinking and feeling it may imbue writing with a certain heightened sensitivity, an openness to contradiction, a willingness to confront how self can undermine self. This rare perceptiveness and depth is to be found abundantly in Crosley’s brilliant and essential summation of her experiences. If, as she surmises, “suicide is a tax on human consciousness,” then art inspired by loss, such as this masterful elegy, might be a most precious psychic subsidy.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

Back to Poppies of Terra

Powered by CouchCMS