SAY HER NAME, by Francisco Goldman. Grove, 350 pp., $24.
So many dead people. So much grief. So many books about it. Critics have asked if Joan Didion might have said all that was necessary on the topic in "The Year of Magical Thinking"; readers can be forgiven for wondering if they can stand to read one more word.
The answers are, no, she didn't; and yes, you can. "Say Her Name" brings something new to the rime of the grieving survivor: fresh supplies of imagination, ruthlessness and over-the-edge crazy love. Believe me, you haven't been harrowed like this in a while.
The brilliant novelist and investigative journalist Francisco Goldman ("The Divine Husband," "The Art of Political Murder") met 25-year-old Aura Estrada, a Mexican graduate student and aspiring writer, at a reading at Columbia University in 2003. The morning after their first night together, he came out of the bathroom to find her looking at his driver's license. Forty-seven! she exclaimed.
Middle-aged he may have been, but he soon was besotted in a way he never knew possible. "It was all new for me, this degree of intimacy and trust and its requirements: an expansion of attention and a concurrent narrowing of focus to be able to take in everything, past and present, inside the radius of Aura's life that I could." The intensity, tenderness and heat of this love is extraordinary; how many of us have ever been loved so well? Or would recognize such love, were it not laid out with such intelligence and precision?
Shortly, the lovers are engaged. Aura loses sleep fretting that she's condemned herself to an early, miserable widowhood. Frank assures her she can stick him in a nursing home when he's 75 and start a second life. Soon, they are just too happy to worry about it. When Aura calls him to ride an hour back and forth on the subway to have lunch with her, he always goes, helpless against her sweet fiat. "Francisco," she chides, "I didn't get married to eat lunch by myself."
Then, two years later, Aura breaks her neck bodysurfing on vacation in Mexico. She lives a day, then slips into a coma and dies. As she tells her mother with one of her last breaths, "Fue una tontería." It was a stupid thing.
This part of the book was published in The New Yorker magazine as Personal History -- which means fact. Of the unembroidered, verifiable kind. But to this foundation of fact, "Say Her Name" adds layers that require the freedom of fiction. Chapters imagine Aura's childhood, her years at the university, her entwined relationship with her mother, Juanita, her one encounter with her estranged father. These are journeys a memoirist cannot take. This imagined past is interwoven with charming stories of the marriage and brutal narratives of mourning. Goldman's grief takes him into the beds of her friends, leads to drunken head injuries, provokes behavior that is, by turns, pitiable, ugly and disastrous. Meanwhile, Juanita's bereaved frenzy causes her to sever relations with Goldman, seeing him not as the love of Aura's life but as her murderer.
Goldman is obsessed with his degree of culpability, with the idea that he is, meta- phorically, the wave that killed her. Recalling the terror he used to feel on subway platforms, he writes of "how vulnerable she was -- so caught up in her own excitement, not paying attention, so physically slight -- to a shove from behind by some fiendish lunatic off his medication, into the path of an oncoming train. This recurring fear of a crazed subway pusher was sometimes so strong that I would almost feel the urge to push her off the platform myself, as if the fiendish lunatic was me and I needed to get the inevitable over with, or as if I just couldn't endure so much love and happiness one more second, and simultaneously, in a silent burst of panic, I'd pull her to safety . . . rescuing her from phantom fiends but also from myself."
I urge readers just discovering Goldman to go back to his 1992 novel, "The Long Night of White Chickens." Though the half-Guatemalan, half- American protagonist of that book seemed very close to the author, the plot was not autobiographical . . . yet. The beloved woman at the center of the story is dead when the book begins. That this was Goldman's subject even then increases the beauty and mystery of both works.
More memoirs that remember loved ones
Grief is the subject of several recent memoirs:
A WIDOW'S STORY, by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco). The prolific author is undone when her husband of 46 years dies suddenly of an infection.
HISTORY OF A SUICIDE, by Jill Bialosky (Atria). A poet and editor revisits her sister's suicide at 21.
THE LONG GOODBYE, by Meghan O'Rourke (Riverhead). Based on a series of columns the author wrote on Slate.com after her 55-year-old mother's death from cancer.
EXCERPT FROM "SAY HER NAME"
Aura died on July 25, 2007. I went back to Mexico for the first anniversary because I wanted to be where it had happened, at that beach on the Pacific Coast. Now, for the second time in a year, I'd come home again to Brooklyn without her.
Three months before she died, April 24, Aura had turned 30. We'd been married 26 days shy of two years.
Aura's mother and uncle accused me of being responsible for her death. It's not as if I consider myself not guilty. If I were Juanita, I know I would have wanted to put me in prison, too. Though not for the reasons she and her brother gave.
From now on, if you have anything to say to me, put it in writing -- that's what Leopoldo, Aura's uncle, said on the telephone when he told me that he was acting as Aura's mother's attorney in the case against me. We haven't spoken since.
Aura and me
Aura and her mother
Her mother and me
A love-hate triangle, or, I don't know
Mi amor, is this really happening?
Où sont les axolotls?
Whenever Aura took leave of her mother, whether at the Mexico City airport or if she was just leaving her mother's apartment at night, or even when they were parting after a meal in a restaurant, her mother would lift her hand to make the sign of the cross over her and whisper a little prayer asking the Virgin of Guadalupe to protect her daughter.
Axolotls are a species of salamander that never metamorphose out of the larval state, something like pollywogs that never become frogs. They used to be abundant in the lakes around the ancient city of Mexico, and were a favorite food of the Aztecs. Until recently, axolotls were said to be still living in the brackish canals of Xochimilco; in reality they're practically extinct even there. They survive in aquariums, laboratories and zoos.
Aura loved the Julio Cortázar short story about a man who becomes so mesmerized by the axolotls in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that he turns into an axolotl. Every day, sometimes even three times a day, the nameless man in that story visits the Jardin des Plantes to stare at the strange little animals in their cramped aquarium, at their translucent milky bodies and delicate lizard's tails, their pink flat triangular Aztec faces and tiny feet with nearly humanlike fingers, the odd reddish sprigs that sprout from their gills, the golden glow of their eyes, the way they hardly ever move, only now and then twitching their gills, or abruptly swimming with a single undulation of their bodies. They seem so alien that he becomes convinced they're not just animals, that they bear some mysterious relation to him, are mutely enslaved inside their bodies yet somehow, with their pulsing golden eyes, are begging him to save them. One day the man is staring at the axolotls as usual, his face close to the outside of the tank, but in the middle of that same sentence, the "I" is now on the inside of the tank, staring through the glass at the man, the transition happens just like that. The story ends with the axolotl hoping that he's succeeded in communicating something to the man, in bridging their silent solitudes, and that the reason the man no longer visits the aquarium is because he's off somewhere writing a story about what it is to be an axolotl.
The first time Aura and I went to Paris together, about five months after she'd moved in with me, she wanted to go to the Jardin des Plantes to see Cortázar's axolotls more than she wanted to do anything else. She'd been to Paris before, but had only recently discovered Cortázar's story. You would have thought that the only reason we'd flown to Paris was to see the axolotls, though actually Aura had an interview at the Sorbonne, because she was considering transferring from Columbia. Our very first afternoon, we went to the Jardin des Plantes, and paid to enter its small 19th century zoo. In front of the entrance to the amphibian house, or vivarium, there was a mounted poster with information in French about amphibians and endangered species, illustrated with an image of a red-gilled axolotl in profile, its happy extraterrestrial's face and albino monkey arms and hands. Inside, the tanks ran in a row around the room, smallish illuminated rectangles set into the wall, each framing a somewhat different humid habitat: moss, ferns, rocks, tree branches, pools of water. We went from tank to tank, reading the placards: various species of salamanders, newts, frogs, but no axolotls. We circled the room again, in case we'd somehow missed them. Finally Aura went up to the guard, a middle-aged man in uniform, and asked where the axolotls were. He didn't know anything about the axolotls, but something in Aura's expression seemed to give him pause, and he asked her to wait; he left the room and a moment later came back with a woman, somewhat younger than him, wearing a blue lab coat. She and Aura spoke quietly, in French, so I couldn't understand what they were saying, but the woman's expression was lively and kind. When we went outside, Aura stood there for a moment with a quietly stunned expression. Then she told me that the woman remembered the axolotls; she'd even said that she missed them. But they'd been taken away a few years before and were now in some university laboratory. Aura was in her charcoal gray woolen coat, a whitish wool scarf wrapped around her neck, strands of her straight black hair mussed around her soft round cheeks, which were flushed as if burning with cold, though it wasn't particularly cold. Tears, just a few, not a flood, warm salty tears overflowed from Aura's brimming eyes and slid down her cheeks.
Who cries over something like that? I remember thinking. I kissed the tears, breathing in that briny Aura warmth. Whatever it was that so got to Aura about the axolotls not being there seemed part of the same mystery that the axolotl at the end of Cortázar's story hopes the man will reveal by writing a story. I always wished that I could know what it was like to be Aura.
Où sont les axolotls? she wrote in her notebook. Where are they?
From "Say Her Name" © by Francisco Goldman; reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.