Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener
Content Warning: This review includes content on trauma, ableism, addiction, electroshock, suicidality, and other subjects that some readers may find triggering.
Twenty years ago, I encountered Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, Susanne Paola Antonetta’s creative nonfiction masterpiece. This bold book established Antonetta’s reputation as a writer unafraid to merge genres, styles, themes, and assertions. Her devotion to centering the truth behind the now famous feminist adage, “the personal is political,” is revisited in her new book from Mad Creek. Perhaps only Antonetta could have taken on longstanding debates about—and, more importantly, direct experiences of—electroshock and situated them in tandem with stories of addiction, reflections on quantum physics, and intergenerational interpretations of consciousness and its many meanings. Even if others might have dared to venture into these disparate while overlapping mindscapes, and their pragmatic (often horrifying while instructive) implications, only Antonetta could have done so in the ways she has. Her approaches once again demonstrate her deeply, stylistically recognizable authorial voice, replete with iconoclastic brilliance and compassion.
As someone who is an admirer and producer of asynchronous storytelling and one who often prefers braided narratives, even if I had not already been devoted to Antonetta’s writing conventions and anti-conventions, this book would have piqued my curiosity and interest. Like Body Toxic, The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here is firmly rooted in place—that is, as firmly rooted as something constantly moving might or could be. Memories, too, are rooted and uprooted in their emplotments, as Paul Ricœur asserted throughout his writing career. Ricœur famously combined hermeneutics and phenomenology; namely, he brought together the worlds of structuralist symbology (and post-structuralist semiotics) with those of sensory and perceptual description, thereby taking mere empiricism for a thrilling ride, with memory as the roller coaster’s first car. Antonetta’s writing is in no ways derivative or truly like anyone else’s work; simultaneously, I found myself thinking often of Ricœur while being in the midst of Antonetta’s wisdom and gratefully absorbing her unabashed candor.
Antonetta’s readers are taken first to “The Summer Land,” the initial, major section of the text, and a locus to which we are returned, throughout the volume. The book is divided into five parts, the last of which is “Remains”—no tender pun, here. The titular chapter is in the middle (“The Terrible Unlikelihood”), and functions not unlike a bell curve apex. Immediately before “Remains,” we are greeted by while warned of a plethora of “Smithereens.” Section two, “Interrogations: Hard Problems and Harder Problems,” brings us squarely (and without right angles) into a family history presented as physics.
Each of the chapters is a kind of prose poem; indeed, there are poems within or as the chapters. Antonetta’s population of the text with its many people is interlaced with fragmented yet somehow whole memories, scenes-in-place, belief systems, harms, joys, survivals, and struggles. Altogether, these facets are characters, rotating as electron-shelled interactions, and can be read as dramatis personae—sans the masks, and without mere personification.
In a section of part two, “The Problem of the Past,” we learn how “observation can not only change the present but the past,” by engaging with John Wheeler’s work in “delayed choice”: “a galaxy-scale, double-slit experiment with photons passing quasars.” Quasars, Antonetta advises, “are mysterious. We know they’re distant, massive, and bright, probably drawing their energy from black holes. They can be a trillion times more luminous than our sun. The route the photon takes around the quasar is only fixed when its travel is measured, though the measurement happens when the photon arrives and not before” (121). The feeling of being in a welcoming science seminar is also the reader’s opportunity to think about how memory works, without enduring gaslighting or minimizing any survivors’ powerful, necessary truths. “We live in the forward-moving arrow of time, or we feel that way,” Antonetta asserts vitally and with affection, “…so it’s hard to say what this delayed-choice uncertainty means of a human individual. All I can tell you is that many physicists who study time come to see the past the way a restless interior decorator might see a room. Here are brocade chairs, under the gilt mirror, and opposite the painting of a ship—real things—but all of it could be moved anywhere, could have been nudged anywhere infinite times” (122-123). She concludes this section with the following whopper of a sentence: “Any past compatible with the present moment is a possible past” (123). The disturbing activism of the false memory debaters might find refuge in this phrasing, but Antonetta means to accomplish quite the opposite: she is undergirding people’s agency to author their own lives, despite brutalities faced and inequities endured.
As happened throughout my reading of the book, I found that I could write an entire book review of (or, engage in a discussion regarding) this section, alone. I will foray briefly into the aforementioned passage, in the spirit of a close reading, before proceeding to other highlighted features.
Uncertainty is a central conceptual framework in “The Problem of the Past.” Perhaps uncertainty is the past’s main problem, or just one of its many dilemmas. It seems to me that another key intrigue or problem, here, is the fact of observation’s capacious orientation toward change and fluidity—especially where memories are concerned. The plasticity of neural networks, and the hope that holds the promise within this shot-through plasticity, fly in the face of biological determinism. With deep care and a special kind of ease, I want to call Antonetta a very unique kind of “resilience proponent.”
In my view, a resilience proponent’s claims seek to undermine the idea that trauma is a doomed inheritance (genetically, epigenetically, environmentally, and in other forms and combinations). For example, spirited and spiritual biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s explanations for a feasible, collective unconscious are not really Jungian. His explanations for collectivity and synchronicity likewise refute epigenetics, while managing to suggest that what he calls “formative causation,” with its dynamics of “morphogenesis” and “morphogenetic fields” (invisible while omnipresent, as is gravity), exceeds the sanguineous, thereby advancing Queerness and the related concept of chosen families, as well as nonhuman and human bonds and ecological interdependence.
In parallel (or via a parallelogram) with Ricœur and Sheldrake, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space is another reflective text that arises for me, while reading Antonetta. Yes, Bachelard’s work is dated; it is intermittently racist, sexist, and otherwise deeply troubling, in terms of access. Clearly, these are not the reasons I find sanctuary in the text. Instead, despite what is vividly problematic in this 1958 work about architecture (and much more), I welcome Bachelard’s aesthetics, and the ways in which corners, nests, attics, basements, and wardrobes are among his idioms for affect, existing as both extradiegetic and interior, while his writing is explicitly not psychoanalytic (as he makes quite plain). There are surely female and nonbinary activist-scholars whose prose also comes to mind when reading Antonetta’s, in part because I am an associative reader. However, somehow, at least at the time of this review’s writing, two dead French cishet male philosophers and one living British one—decidedly, also and primarily a renowned, heretical scientist—are making the rounds in my mind, as I read Antonetta. (Perhaps I will ask her what she thinks of these interlocutors.)
The idea of time and memories as things, as furniture, that “could be moved anywhere, could have been nudged anywhere infinite times,” is something I find freeing and redemptive, without romanticization. It seems that Antonetta finds a similar possibility in this orientation. From the beginning of the book onward, an epistemological commitment to movement and change, as well as metatextuality, are strongly present. “Ars Poetica” and “Arts Poetica II” guide the reader and illuminate the book’s winding pathways, without even a hint of heavy-handedness. Still, we are encouraged to find our own way. I read the book both in and out of its pagination sequence.
In “Ars Poetica,” Antonetta states, “My fascination with the mind didn’t end when I quit putting altering substances into mine. I still need to know how it works. I wonder what in the world, given the nature of quantum reality, can be said to be real at all, a question that would have fascinated my grandmother, in a more wholly metaphysical way. I have come to think of myself more as a questioner than a writer” (7). I asked Antonetta about this reflection during our interview, published in this issue of Wordgathering.
Antonetta talks openly about addiction, bipolar disorder, and emotional variances in ways that are fascinating, dangerous, and rending, without either idealization or deprecation. Suicidality is likewise addressed. This book is indeed an insider tour-de-force, with respect to disability representation and #CripLit; the volume likewise presents itself to all readers, in ways that wholly welcomes outsiders—so that there are, in fact, no outsiders. Antonetta notes, “…the language of addiction still troubles me, and I don’t know how to define myself. It is one flat term for an endless number of states of being, an attempt to name something at a molecular level, when living with drugs is more quantum, more a sea of probabilities” (207).
In “My World,” she asserts herself “aloud” while introspectively, as happens many times in the book: “It occurs to me as I assemble these old conversations that I didn’t believe the world as I found it came to exist until I came to exist. The past as narrated to me seemed improbably different. It resembled the inexplicable whatnot preceding the big bang, or a parallel universe, a thing radically different. I got this thinking from listening to family stories, and to what I learned through the endless town crier called television. It was not ego; I believed my world could have existed before me, but it didn’t seem that it had” (161). Many readers will find this passage deeply relatable (regardless of an interest in physics).
A bit prior, Antonetta describes her forming a “relationship” with her “mind” and her “bipolarity,” in her youth—specifically, as a teen. In this section, “The Luminiferous Ether,” she notes, “And it is a relationship, an intimate and attached one, the way you learn to get along with your heart. The heart will pound at times, and skip as if it’s gotten tangled in its own jump rope. It will need some soothing, some relationship time. And you learn. I can make no sense of the medical concept of an episode when a state of mind like my bipolar disorder ‘first occurred.’ Occurrence only speaks to visibility: like when that pale but grayish-blue of the veins seeps out as red. I was always bipolar” (139, italics in original). I hope that many folx with bipolar disorder read this book—and, if not the entire book, then, at the very least, this passage, in which recognition finds its home with empowerment, particularly for those of us managing in a mentalist, sanist society.
While discussing her mother’s passionate devotion to mystery novels—and her kind while at times pressing questions about Antonetta’s writing conventions and process—Antonetta says the following, in “Ars Poetica II”: “You learn to recognize those characters who have just enough narrative identity, who are neutral enough, with a sound but not airtight alibi, who seem to have no motive. The person who is un-obvious but not unthinkable. The inconspicuous killer. There’s only one such person in every book” (9). She tells her mother she cannot write a book like that, when her mother asks her, directly. Antonetta’s response is telling: “I told her honestly that I would turn it into a complete mess. I would give things away” (10).
I am glad, moved, and grateful beyond words for the ways in which (as well as when, and how) Antonetta “give[s] things away” to us in The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here, a book to which I will return, many times. I strongly encourage all fellow readers to do the same, in your own ways—with your own quantum (and likely unquantifiable) engagements and approaches.
Title: The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here
Author: Susanne Paola Antonetta
Publisher: Mad Creek Books (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press)
Read an interview with Susanne Paola Antonetta in this issue of Wordgathering.
About the Reviewer
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.