The Moss Laughs at Our Melancholy: A Review of Imagine a Death by Janice Lee

Alyssa Manansala

Following his mother’s death, Roland Barthes kept a daily log of his process of loss, writing down his thoughts on slips of paper. Rather than depicting a process of mourning, Mourning Diary charts mourning as a constant resurgence in the life of the bereaved. Mourning Diary serves as an appendix for some of Barthes’ most fundamental texts and lectures, each structured by the loss of his mother and his unending loneliness without her. In each entry of Barthes’ isolation, the reader gets the sense that while he is going through the motions of living through the grief his mother’s death left him with—producing theory, writing books, teaching at the university, going to cafes, traveling to Morocco, reluctantly meeting with friends—he is only barely surviving. Barthes also begins to resent “mourning” as a structural concept, as if to merely label what he is going through as “mourning” is dismissive of and diminishes his experience of individual loss and isolation: “Don’t say Mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.” While “mourning” is psychoanalytic, defined as a period of loss, “suffering” might be more akin to the chronic melancholia of Freud’s study, which is to say, it endures and the mourned object can never be replaced. For Barthes, there is no treatment for his experience of loss, no adapting to it, and this is what troubles him most about the concept of mourning: his individual experience of suffering is reduced and generalized. Just as Mourning Diary creates a binary between individual suffering and its reduction into mourning, so too does Janice Lee’s new novel, Imagine a Death, demonstrate the tension that erupts in the face of death, between being known and being alone.

In Imagine a Death, a photographer tells a writer, “I don’t understand,” to which she callously responds, “The point isn’t to understand.” She does not reveal to him, however, that his proclamation, symptomatic of what she considers his stubborn nature, has devastated her. She is not pained because he does not understand her; rather, his admitted misrecognition reminds her of other moments in life when we find ourselves in relation with another, but rather than feeling communion, we are confronted with our own isolation, the self’s inconsolable difference. For the two lovers at the center of Imagine a Death, such moments are sometimes banal, cerebral, cliché of the foibles of romance—he does not, cannot, understand her or her writing; he cannot explain to her the intent of his photographs but longs for her to accept his love. Meanwhile, she can only attempt intimacy through her writing but can tell no one, not even herself, what the subject of her next manuscript is; she takes him to a secluded location and tells him she has never taken anyone there with her only to reveal to the reader she has taken all of her lovers there, after another lover took her. As she allows him to embrace her and they merge their disparate bodies together, she recalls the previous trysts with a blasé detachment, a devastation that is expected when two bodies touch and fail to recognize each other.

At other moments in Imagine a Death, existential isolation is framed by violence—he, the Photographer, imposes his desire for her, the Writer, to accept his love through physical force; she recognizes his pronouncements of feminism and allyship as a masquerade, having more to do with patriarchal possession than love. Regarding his violence with the same wisened reverie, she is devastated by his inability to understand her not so much because she longs to be understood by him, but because her relief in not being understood, in finally being alone, free from relation, is disrupted by the memory of a traumatic childhood incident when her adoptive family brutally murdered a young girl in a ritual sacrifice that would ensure the group’s survival. While the Writer longs for isolation upon her confrontation with the Photographer, she is haunted by the memory of the sacrificed girl’s screaming, how she could not distinguish it from her own, and how she joined the others by the river as they washed their hands of the girl’s blood, her death apparently benefitting her own survival, too.

Death is the ultimate unknown. For humans, it is also the ultimate known, our awareness of its imminence structuring neurosis, our living only important because we know it will one day end. The event of another’s death alerts us to our impending isolation as we approach it, but our shared knowledge of death’s inevitability binds us, has us clamoring for intimacy and relation as potential balms to our loneliness. As we regard the other’s face, however beloved, we are plagued by the enduring questions: Do I know you? Do you know me? These questions, their unknowability, wound and traumatize. It is perhaps for this reason that Lee elects a long form of prose for her text’s narration, as each chapter is dedicated to her human and nonhuman characters, and sentences can go on for pages, unspooling into streams of consciousness. For the Writer, the Photographer, and the Old Man, who all live within the same metropolitan wasteland of a city, internal and existential deliberations over death and relation oscillate and contradict with each clause, as they recall the traumatic events of their life, with each word feeling the full weight of their mourning. The event from the Writer’s memory is easily recognizable as macabre, but the traumatic memories that resurface for each of the central human characters of Lee’s text also include experiencing the death of a loved one, namely mother, grandmother, or wife figures. Their deaths range from the ghastly to the banal, but each loss is wounding, and death is never just death. Rather, death means the loss of a beloved, thus the living must survive that loss, forever wounded. Death, trauma, loss, and violence are interchangeable concepts.

It is not Lee’s intent to trivialize any type of death or trauma by juxtaposing the simultaneous banality and brutality of isolation; it is perhaps not even Lee’s intent to distinguish between mourning that is psychoanalytic or sociological vs. suffering that is individual and proprietary (à la Barthes). Rather, Lee contextualizes each character’s experience of loss within the ecological disaster that serves as the quiet backdrop of her novel—the city in which the Writer, the Photographer, and the Old Man live, where the hillside burns regularly, and birds and children fall from the sky to their death with little regard from the humans and nonhumans who survive them, absorbed in their own individual experiences of death. For the humans, death as a result of the slow burn of climate change is normalized, much like the political structures that have created the problem of climate change in the first place are normalized, and our isolation under capitalism is normalized. As such, our alienation from each other and from the planet which we inhabit is rendered natural, and the earth’s eventual destruction in the name of progress is taken as inevitable. The Writer and the Photographer’s relationship with each other only serves to highlight each individual’s ultimate isolation, their apparent inability to know each other perhaps an allegory for all human relation predicated on the irresolvability of difference. I could not help but read their relationship alongside Barthes’ other work, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, written during the period of the Mourning Diary, in which Barthes proposes photography as outside the confines of language, with the studium of the photograph constituting the photographer’s intent in producing the image, and the punctum being the element of the photo that pierces, wounds, or bruises the individual viewer. The unique capability of photography to render the experience of loss and death then seems contradictory to a proclamation that Barthes makes in Mourning Diary about writing, that he can only soothe his suffering through language. That the Writer and the Photographer cannot understand each other through the other’s central method for expressing their experiences of loss (text vs. image) gestures to the banality of their misrecognition of each other, and ultimately the futility of their individual isolation.

In the Old Man’s narrative, we see perhaps a glimmer of recognition that isolation under structures of power is what got us in this dystopian landscape to begin with, that self-preservation in the face of death means little if there is not a world, an us, to survive, escape, and contribute to. He is perpetually reorganizing the objects in his apartment to avoid not just the loss of his mother and his wife, but also the falling sky outside his apartment, the city crumbling before him, and his openness to varying forms systematization distinguish him from the young couple, set in their ways, such that he can recognize his own futility:

As he smells the faint smell of burning trees pushing through around the edges of the closed window, he wonders why he is still here, whether he even cares about survival. He is capable of killing, this he knows about himself as he has done it more than once before, but what does such a low gesture of survival mean in a world like this, does it mean anything to survive, to still be here, to outlast the others if he has never carved out an escape route for himself? As he catches the flicker of a dust mote in the light, he feels himself lowering the periphery of his vision, doubting what he has ever contributed to the living world in this long existence he has managed to lead, thinks about the trajectory of his entire life and all of the events that have led himself to this point, here, in this apartment, in this dying city, grieves the deterioration of his legs that are no longer reliable enough to even carry him out of the building, and remembering that he has nowhere to go, and that really, all of this started the day he was born, he remembers to breathe and answers himself with the only possible answer, Not quite yet.

The irony here is that the Old Man is old, his body decrepit, and only toward the end of his life can he muster up the optimism or the resolve to propose “Not quite yet” to the existential question of whether he has done enough in his life to justify surviving in the face of not just death, but cataclysmic ecological disaster. What will he do? What can he do? What can any of us do? If death is final, if what we have lost can never be returned, what will ever be enough? Imagine a Death answers these questions through its nonhuman characters, including the Birds, the Dog, the Bears, and the Moss, whose connection to the Earth remains even after human intellectual and technological process have run their destructive courses. So says the moss:

Here, a world of relation. . . . Everywhere, all of the plants and animals breathe together in an intimate cycle that is shared and just like language, can only exist because it is shared.

Before all of this, there was a before that was rooted in an ugliness, a kind of ragged contentment in difference, the distance between a body and home as equal to the kind of forbidden question, What is home?

Today the relational qualities of air are the relational qualities of words, and you may learn more from paying attention to what lies beneath your feet than what composes the sky above you.

In response to the Old Man’s static posture in the face of death and disaster, the Moss breathes, even laughs at the mess the humans have made in their melancholy, the violence we inflict upon each other and the Earth out of our own woundedness and isolation, our fear of death, difference, and the unknown, despite the answers deeply seeded in the ground we call home. Alluding to the futility of language, her chosen medium, Lee proposes alternate forms of communion beyond human communication that destabilize not just what we understand as the individual human subject, but what we assume to be its trajectory through linear history (as the Bears and the Trees demonstrate in their processes of hibernation, time is circular). A dystopian novel, Imagine a Death joins posthumanist discourses and urges the human subject to reconsider on one hand its attachment to the “human,” and on the other hand how that investment is informed by difference, which human progress has responded to in various forms of violence and trauma. Lee thus asks what new (or old) forms of relation might be discovered if we look down at the earth and bodies we mourn, the dynamism in their transformation from life to death, and how our mourning might propel us past the horizon above us.

Alyssa Manansala is an essayist, poet, educator, and PhD student in the department of American Studies at Brown University. Her interests include Asian American poetry and hybrid literary forms, Filipinx studies, postcolonial theory, performance theory, and visual culture. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts, where she was awarded the 2018/2019 Teaching Fellowship and the 2019 REEF Artist Residency. Her writing can be found in Nat. BrutTAYO Literary Magazine, Agape: A Journal of Literary Good Will, and In Dance, among others.