In his fragmentary work The Step Not Beyond (State University of New York Press, 1992; translated by Lycette Nelson), Maurice Blanchot describes writing as “not destined to leave traces, but to erase, by traces, all traces, to disappear in the fragmentary space of writing more definitely than one disappears in the tomb.” This concept of writing suffuses the pages of Disembodied, Christina Tudor-Sideri’s first book-length work of fiction. As in Blanchot’s ontological fiction, Tudor-Sideri’s novel queries the nature of being, relentlessly pondering bodies, souls, memory, death, and time—spoken through the voice of a narrator experiencing her own disappearance.
The narrator of Disembodied is a woman who has died in her garden, not far from her house, and yet she is speaking to us from a somewhat arbitrary moment she has chosen as her present. We are not sure how she has died, but it seems that she had been ill for some time and, if memory serves her correct (and whether it does is in constant question), she was still quite young. Prior to her collapse in the garden she had been in her house writing a letter, which she refers to from time to time, though she struggles to remember its contents. What follows this opening to the novel is “her confession”—unspooled in a single unbroken torrent of serpentine prose delivered by “the observer who gets to witness her own erasure.” And yet even as she experiences this process of erasure she is coming into a new way of being: quite literally she is coming into literary form.
To be disembodied is to be separated from or existing without one’s body. While the narrator in Tudor-Sideri’s novel reports that she has died, more precisely she appears to have been freed from her corporeal existence yet continues to retain a form of consciousness, which raises the question of what death truly means for a person’s consciousness—does it linger on and if so for how long? What would this period feel like? The imagined experience of a gradual effacement of one’s consciousness during such a period forms the substrate of the novel. The narrator is existing outside of her body—on “the shore between the living and the dead”—and she is adjusting to this unfamiliar locale. At first she feels a connection to physical things through her memories associated with them: her white dress, her books, a dog she adopted. She can recall certain moments and anecdotes from her life, such as collecting rainwater or attending swimming class as a child. But as she reaches out for these memories they are fading, and while she still feels “a strange kind of longing” even it is becoming more abstract.
The narrator contemplates alternatives to her situation, including the possibility of immortality or even just the chance to once again “rise and walk toward something, anything.” Perhaps the most poetic alternative to death arises toward the end of the book when she envisions a world where souls can leave their bodies. In this world people could choose to be soulless in moments where having a soul might be cause for injury, and souls on their own could fly through the world and possibly even travel through time. However, these flights of fancy mingle with her recollections of not ever feeling at home in the world—of not belonging—and of how so much of her life has been permeated by exhaustion. She thinks of her sister and the distance between them, not only in years, but in their dissimilarities and the tenuous nature of their relationship. She looks back with “detachment and indifference” at the memory of all the people she has known. And so she questions whether “finding a new way of being or a new form of transforming consciousness”—were this even possible—would actually be worthwhile. It occurs to her that she might only be “using this discourse as a crutch for all that remains unfinished, for all that I still fear.”
Close to the end of the novel, the narrator speaks of “this becoming, this endless becoming: the inexhaustible voice in the poem.” It is in fact the narrator’s own voice throughout her confession that feels inexhaustible, her words now becoming the creatures she characterizes them as, in whose bite “our blood mingles with the ink that births them” to the extent that “one can no longer tell what is written and what is lived.” In that spirit it would seem that by the end her consciousness has been absorbed fully into the text itself—now no longer a self but instead having become diffuse within the totality of her own words.
Tudor-Sideri thrives in the fragment form. In her genre-resistant nonfiction work Under the Sign of the Labyrinth (Sublunary Editions, 2020) she similarly employed fragmentary writing to leap from one notion to the next, teasing together tendrils of thought in an elegant form of essayistic evolution that touches on many of the same themes explored in Disembodied. The unified whole of such texts composed of fragments arguably yields greater rewards for us than the entirety of a carefully plotted work with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Fragmented literature enables digression and narrative destabilization as forms of inquiry opening outward from the text. Thus, Disembodied is not a work to be read once and put aside. It calls out for repeated, deeper readings in which we converse with the text in parallel with the narrator’s own conversation. Perhaps if we go deep enough we too will disappear, if only for a moment.
Disembodied, by Christina Tudor-Sideri. Seattle, Washington: Sublunary Editions, July 2022. 152 pages. $15.50, paper.
S. D. Stewart lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of the novel A Set of Lines and a member of the collaborative publishing project Ghost Paper Archives.
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