• Five Griefs: A Review of Orange by E. Briskin

    Most real-life stories have no true beginning or ending. They are all middle. Other stories weave in and out of them, extending some threads, tucking others away. E. Briskin’s hybrid work, Orange, operates in a similar fashion, using prose/poetry and an unconventional storytelling structure to expand the possibilities of the narrative.

    Orange is ostensibly about a dog. A dog who dies. And a human who is left to go on with life. But it is really about how different beings experience the world — how they feel, how they sense, how they love — and how memories are processed, rearranged, and stored away. It is also about how there is no one reality but rather many moments that constitute the mosaic of experience.

    The book’s format lends itself to the narrative project; instead of beginning on the first page and ending on the last, the narrative is in numbered sections, 1–757. Rather than proceeding chronologically down the pages, the numbers proceed like this:

    → 1, 2, 3 across the tops of the pages until 246, then

    ← 247, 248, 249 through 493 across the middles of the pages, then

    → 496, 497, 498 through 745 across the near-bottoms of the pages, then

    ← 746 through 757.

    The reader may read top to bottom, through the pages (p. 1–252) as is customary, or follow the numbers of the sections. With either method, the text makes connections and associations and tells a story. The story can “end” wherever the reader chooses.

    “If I write in this [book] backwards, who will I find?” the speaker asks (83). In playing with time and page-space, the book reproduces the act of memory, as if a backwards narrative can reverse time and bring a lost friend back into existence. “Is it memory that makes pain?” (470) the speaker wonders, considering the many facets and origins of grief. Section 73 recounts a supposedly oft-told tale of a woman (“or maybe she’s just a person”) who loses five family members and friends. The outside world admires her ability to deal with loss. But when her dog dies, grief knocks her down.

    I know what you’re thinking — that the dog held five griefs. But maybe grief for her dog was just grief for her dog. The grief she collapsed into was for her dog (74).

    Orange asks us to consider what grief and pain might mean for someone besides ourselves, to consider that the loss of a dog could be more devastating than the loss of five human loved ones. This is part of Orange’s project: to inhabit other ways of seeing, other perspectives and points of view.

    In a different book, a speaker like the one in Orange might be called “unreliable.” Strict sequences of events and pure versions of fact are hard to pin down. The dog that fills these pages has no breed, no gender, and sometimes may not even exist. But rather than being about deception, the narration reflects the many ways different people or species perceive reality, or even how one person perceives reality at different times. Briskin tackles the task of representing different realities in a number of ways. One is through the varied order of the book. The other is through inconsistency.

    Section 1 begins:

    My dog died today.[1]

    It was unexpected.

    One hour it was barking

    then it stopped.

     

    But later,

    My dog, had it existed, would

    die today (10).

     

    My dog — oh, forget it — I don’t have a dog (65).

     

    I told a friend I couldn’t stop writing about you. My friend looked at me strangely: What dog? (111).

    Orange challenges what the word “reality” means. Did the dog exist? Or did it not? Perhaps it existed in the past (twenty years ago?), or only for the person to whom the dog mattered — and to no one else. Regardless, the emotions of love and loss are real.

    Briskin employs inconsistency not only to convey events but also to portray identity, as in a sequence about the cops coming to round up a neighbor’s escaped dog:

    “Ma’am [sic],” they said. “Can you help us? Do you have any pull with the neighbor’s dog?” (410).

     

    “Sir [sic], can you help again?” (415).

     

    “Thank you, miss [sic].

    How’d you do that?”

    the cops said (417).

    We are never told the speaker’s “real” gender, only the gender the police perceive. The repetition of the cops asking for help reinforces the idea that multiple realities exist — there is no “real” gender. Briskin takes this idea further in a later passage:

    If I, born a woman (except I wasn’t? why think I was?). If I, from utero with utero, can become something else, is a dog such // a faraway possibility? (506–7).

    Here the speaker questions not only an individual’s identity as a human (male, female, white, Asian, etc.), but as a species. Many states of being can exist concurrently: past and present, male and female, dog and no dog, human and dog. What are the boundaries between these? Perhaps they are more malleable and fluid than we think. Why not consider the possibility of being a dog? Orange, in fact, takes on that project to a great degree by delving into the experience (emotional, sensory) of dogs, whom humans live so closely with, but do not fully understand.

    Briskin uses the German word umwelt to talk about experience. One of my favorite books, The View from the Oak: The Private Worlds of Other Creatures, explains that umwelt is different from the English words for “world,” “experience,” or “reality.” Instead it refers to “organized experience that is not shared by all creatures, but is special to each creature.” To enter the umwelt of another is to become disoriented in time and space and body. In using this particular word, Briskin specifies the uniqueness of experience — and also, by extension, suggests that there is utility in attempting to comprehend another’s umwelt — their time, their space, and their body.

    Of a childhood dog, the speaker wonders, “Did your days feel too lonely there at home?” (202). It seems like a simple question about all our dogs left at home as we go to school and work, but the next section expands the question to encompass humanity as well:

    I think sometimes of you growing up with me, all alone, like the queer kids who grow up in straight houses, or the deaf kids who are born to the hearing (203).

    The function of imagining the umwelt of a dog is to imagine the umwelt of other humans, too. “How can one human ever understand another? We can’t understand our own dogs” (322). These connections suggest that empathy for the dog we see every single day may lead to empathy for other humans, their isolation and their pain.

    Orange accomplishes a true feat of craft, which is to formally enact its themes, a task few books manage. Through its varied truths, its refusals to be static or specific, it is open to many readers’ experiences and identities. It dives into the task of communicating the many ways each of us live and see. By proposing radical acts of imagination and empathy, it posits that we will understand one another more, and perhaps feel less alone.

     

    [1] This phrase, “My dog died today” also begins sections 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 44, 45, and 48, which might seem ridiculous or obsessive or like bad writing, but it is none of those things. (Well, maybe obsessive.) Instead, the repetition says: There are so many ways this can feel. Or it says: No matter how many days pass, it feels like my dog died today.

     

    J.D. Ho’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Georgia ReviewMissouri ReviewShenandoahNinth LetterAbout Place, and other journals in addition to being listed in Best American Essays 2019. J.D.’s most recent essay has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize
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