“What are these dark days I see in this world so badly bent … How much longer can it last? How long can it go on?” Dylan asks prophetically in his 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, a question that has endured in our collective imagination for two years now. The Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci referred to moments or times like these as a form of “crisis,” which “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Over the last two years, we have seen the old alongside the new, endured death and savored glimpses of the possibilities awaiting their birth. They are here, and yet we are stuck. The transition hasn’t happened, and for some reason unknown to us, it seems it never will. We are perpetually re-living the threshold, a constant state of stasis that we now call the “new normal.” As if on cue, the metaphors have lined up. When the groundhog, Milltown Mel, ominously died just hours before Groundhog Day, the message was clear—the seasons, like us, have refused to move on.
Last year brought us two books that helped me navigate our time of crisis—Rites by Savannah Johnston and Thin Places by Jordan Kisner. In Rites, Johnston offers a collection of stories, each written around a threshold moment. Her characters are flung into the defining moments of their lives—a young boy burying his father in a forest, a daughter’s first driving lesson from her drunk father, a grieving widow’s return to the place of her husband’s death, a young girl’s foray into sex work—and through their eyes, we see how their threshold discloses to them who they will forever be, once they cross over.
Johnston’s stories present us with characters who are ignored and marginalized, who live in counties where jobs have moved out, but drugs and jails have stayed. These towns that others drive past, are where she slows down to show us how unkind time can be when it takes a detour into these forgotten quarters. The places and people here are invisible, or as the wise young protagonist of one of her stories observes, “they didn’t just ignore the rest of us, it was more like they pretended we didn’t exist.”
The essays in Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places focus on just these moments, much like her podcast Thresholds. Her essays linger in these in-between spaces, revisiting them over and over again, reexamining them every time with a perspective altered by the previous visit, until the transformative power held within them is disclosed. Her method is similar to the way she observes Kierkegaard’s is, in “Fear and Trembling,” where the key to understanding a story is within the story itself, and “circling the story again and again will unlock it, like an incantation.” Kisner’s essays capture the is-ness of the liminal event as it is happening, and through its transformed perspective we view the before and after. The old and the new, death and birth, all here together. They make sense only when our perspective has been transformed by the very event that has challenged it.
In her essay “Attunement,” Kisner ponders on “Heterotopias” which she says are spaces that “exist beyond the reach of normal human systems and social mores.” A hospital is an example, as are the many nameless dirt roads, motels, and trailer parks that Johnston frequently places her stories in. In Heterotopias, Kisner says, channeling Foucault, “certain inviolable boundaries that our institutions have not yet dared to break down collide and reveal something. In that space of breakdown, we can look and find the hidden presence of the sacred.”
It is perhaps with this instinctual wisdom that both Kisner and Johnston situate their essays and stories in non-places, at pop-up churches and trailers, dried lake beds and empty silos, religious colonies at the brink of extinction and rundown hotels that have outlived their patrons. These non-places which exist beyond the hither and tither of our everyday lives serve as portals to us. We vicariously inhabit the characters, and pass through their thresholds, as if they were our own, deriving a second-hand closure to compensate for the one we have been denied. At least we have that. As the author Mike Corrao astutely observed, “The weight of nothingness is much more to bear than the weight of thingness.”
In her titular essay, Kisner talks about “thin places” which she says is a Celtic concept that stemmed from the old proverb, “Heaven and Earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.” She goes on to say, “But then, the thin places I’ve known aren’t always places, per se. Sometimes a thin place appears between people. Sometimes it happens only inside you.” And sometimes, I believe, a thin place appears within the pages of a book.
As we look into our future with befuddlement, we may wonder if the sense of déjà vu we feel
comes from looking into the same future for too long, without having stepped in. A future where
we break through and reach the realm beyond the contagion, beyond conspiracy and denial, and
beyond certain annihilation. A future that we hope offers a plateau on which we can erect the
new scaffolding of normalcy and rebuild our mundane everyday lives. As we look hopefully into
such a future, I leave you with a line from one of Kisner’s essays: “Enough is revealed in the way
you wait, and then in the way you leap.”
Rites, by Savannah Johnston. Jaded Ibis Press, September 2021. 174 pages. $17.99, paper.
Thin Places, by Jordan Kisner. New York, New York: Picador, April 2021. 272 pages. $18.00, paper.
Avinash Rajendran is a writer and engineer living in Jersey City. He graduated from The New School with an MFA in Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and others. His interests gather around horror, mysticism, the uncanny, and the transcendental. Twitter: @avinashrajendr.