Lindsey Drager, The Sorrow Proper, DZANC Books, 2015
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
Every time I visit an antique store, I happen upon a card catalog: massive, gorgeous, imposing, and yet delicate in assemblage, alphabetic detail, nearness to extinction. Women made it. At least, that's what I assume, when I notice the faded paper labels—blue or green or sepia-ing black ink, surely produced by a typewriter that was only maybe electrified—that once directed library patrons where to look for what record, what author, what title, what tangible subset of knowledge.
Like many people who achieved literacy in the nineties, I have hazy recollections of card catalogs. I wonder if my generation will be the last to harbor these memories. The card catalogs were near the reference desk at Thomas Ford Memorial Library before the computer stations took over. They were in Pleasantdale Elementary's library, too, dividing from the stacks a sprawl of bean bags that constituted a reading room: I remember the librarian showing them off to a sea of third-graders, ready to search for subjects like, "Giraffe," "Seal," and "Sloth, Two- and Three-Toed." I remember paging through worn cards inside those drawers, touching all that paper's whispery softness, a feeling akin to holding my grandmother's hand.
Though I may pause, forlorn with nostalgia, when I see forsworn card catalog units—gutted, price-stickered—I am not usually this sentimental. Then, of course, I haven't usually just finished a novel like The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager, a haunting tragi-romance that is also an elegy to libraries.
Divided into six sections, Drager's debut novel imagines a world where libraries—or at least one representative library—are going extinct. In The Sorrow Proper, when the collective fails, individuals become harbors of knowledge. "She pointed once to his single shelf of books and called it a library, more a declaration than a christening. How, he wonders, can that sad and small collection share a name with the great building that will still stand gaping, front doors open like loose lips?" This devolution is the climate change against which Drager roll-calls a roster of grief.
Avis, Harriet, Mercedes, and Genevieve are the librarians who meet for post-shift beers, where they first discuss strategies to keep their workplace relevant in an increasingly digital age and then brainstorm proper epitaphs ("an empty library is a grave"). Though they tangle with fate, these women are not the Moirai, the mythical Greek sisters who decided when threads needed snipping. Instead, the librarians tow away to-be-discarded books ("at home, their collections are growing, and they're happy to shelve them without regard to structure or organized plan") and tender theories ("Reading has to be a public act. If only the text and the reader participate in the exchange, then how does knowledge get used?"). The librarians tout dialogue—"There has to be discourse, right? [Reading] can't simply be consuming in a void"—as a right, a choice, a necessity in a world where the library's hours are being increasingly cut.
Patronizing the fragile library are the lovers, lovers of each other and lovers of knowledge. These characters, in fact, are identified only by their scholarly or artistic pursuits: the deaf mathematician and the photographer. They meet at the library and they mourn for one another at the library. And, though the reader learns details about these individuals—the deaf mathematician collects spoons, the photographer shoots (among other subjects) corkscrews—what defines them is their grieving.
Unlike the withering of an institution ("the death of a library is slow"), the death of an intimate is immediate, gross, and blunt, a Googled question—("death?" offers 1,460,000,000 results in 0.47 seconds)—rather than a card-catalog thumbing. Drager traps the couple in a Last Year at Marienbad-esque kaleidoscope. From chapter to chapter, either character may be coping with the death of their partner. Here is the photographer mourning: "This is how the photographer knows that love is the study of change: it is first ice cubes melting along the thin muscle on the inside of her thigh, her damp toothbrush, the rush of risk. And afterward, the wet smell of flowers, revised plans, paying off her debt." It is that afterward to which The Sorrow Proper repeatedly returns, even as the narrative tables are turned. Here is the deaf mathematician, figuring out how to exist without her lover: "A heap of ordered spoons is something to care about, she thinks, and fingers the cove on top of the pile."
The cove of the spoon—the belly—is empty until it is filled. And, as Drager writes, "a library might only be deemed such if there are books inside." The quietest players in The Sorrow Proper are the Bronson parents, for whom the library is a tomb, a grave, a dark spot, haunted by tragedy: in the crosswalk in front of the building, their young daughter was killed. For years, the parents have been protesting, standing wake in the crosswalk, silently willing the erection of a much-needed stop sign. They are forever in afterward, a purgatory of unresolved anger and sadness. As the library replaces books with computers and experiences an "increase in traffic," only then does the county respond to the Bronson family's loss.
The Sorrow Proper experiments with form, ending with empty frames that approximate the photographer's work. There are chapters of epigraph (or epitaphs—this is the subject of librarian debate) and lovely lists. And the prose is so honed that, occasionally, one wonders if this story was meant to be read in a library: in a very, very inside voice. Still, this book aims loftily; its merits are supersized. In this hushed squall of a novel, Drager offers a cautionary tale, a stirring love letter, and an incantatory pleading with grief. In other words, The Sorrow Proper resists classification, though surely it will be a welcome addition to any (#RIP) card catalog.