Philosophical Gothic: Form and Genres of The Hurricane Notebook
Elizabeth M.’s writings were sent to me in the summer of 2014 by Alexander Jech, who had been looking through them over the past year. Alexander had a vision for cleaning up the manuscript well enough to be published as more than just a pile of obscurities. The task seemed monumental, but necessary—a job you can’t say no to, because you’re the only people in charge of deciding whether someone’s story lives or dies. I can honestly say that in the years we have spent working on this book, the labor has been as edifying for us as it has been constructive for the manuscript itself. Any editors of this book, it seems, needed to have been people who would change along the way—people who would change as they worked. We certainly did that.
Some advance readers of The Hurricane Notebook have wondered how to categorize the work into a literary genre. Here, I would like to introduce some clarity on this topic, or explain the lack thereof, before the book enjoys a larger readership. Straightforwardly, there is a real sense in which this manuscript transcends many genres and is not, strictly speaking, within any of them. The content seems to be nonfiction, even though some characters seem not to be obviously identifiable with existing individuals, and many of the conversations seem quite fantastical—vending machine suppliers who double as theologians, and bartenders willing to discuss Kant. So, a nonfiction genre like memoir is not, in my estimation, the correct literary genre within which we should place The Hurricane Notebook. If pressed, I would name three types of literature that the journals of Elizabeth M. can be broadly understood as exemplifying: philosophical dialogue, Southern Gothic, and Greek tragedy.
Although one would be missing much if they understood this manuscript solely as serving a philosophical purpose, its function as a philosophical dialogue is undeniable. The meat of Elizabeth’s journal is the recounting of conversations with her peers, and nearly every one of these conversations is explicitly philosophical in nature. The most important themes draw on existentialist and religious philosophers such as Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, but these dialogues often tackle more wide-ranging material, including traditional philosophical figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and themes from contemporary analytic philosophy. There is a sense in which these recorded conversations strike the reader as contrived; it is difficult to imagine such a cast of philosophically adept characters as Elizabeth portrays. Additionally, one often gets the idea that Elizabeth’s interlocutors are sometimes speaking for her, and that her own recorded responses to “their” arguments are the worries and doubts with which she is plagued. Plato never placed himself within any of the dialogues he authored, and even Plato’s Socrates cannot be comfortably assumed to speak for him; Berkeley and Hume follow Plato in this practice, so that, similarly, it’s never entirely certain that Philonous and Philo speak for them. Aristotle and Cicero diverge from this pattern; they appear as characters in their own dialogues whose arguments and ideas do appear to represent the views of their authors. Elizabeth, as an author, falls in between these camps. She writes herself in as a character, yet in such a way that we cannot always be confident that the position the author takes is the view she puts into her own character’s mouth.
This may be due to a difference in function between Elizabeth’s dialogues and those of the aforementioned authors. A philosophical dialogue is a type of narrative in which argument constitutes the action, and the central conflict is a philosophical problem whose solution bears on human life. Thus, in the Socratic dialogues, ethical content predominates, and they continually feature dramatic portrayals of aporia—philosophical angst—over these questions. But an author may write in a philosophical mode either for the sake of teaching something the author has learned, or for the sake of addressing the author’s own confusion and angst. The Hurricane Notebook is a work of discovery of this latter type. Perhaps Elizabeth therefore appears in her own dialogues, then, not as a teacher of some truth she wants to give the reader, but as an illustration of her efforts to discover that truth.
Perhaps the least intuitive of my three genre suggestions is Southern Gothic. This categorization is generally applied to works of fiction, but the notebook often reads so much like a novel (albeit a fragmentary one) that it is difficult to avoid making such literary comparisons. Superficially, there is much to support such a categorization. Elizabeth M. lived in, and wrote about, North Carolina, which, while far from the Deep South occupied by Capote’s and O’Connor’s characters, still retains a whiff of Southern spirit. In this way, The Hurricane Notebook is more aesthetically similar to the work of Thomas Wolfe or Toni Morrison—work that contains a bit of Southern aesthetic, but muted, or sitting awkwardly alongside a more stifling presence of Midwestern starkness. This, in some ways, gives the audience an advantage—a strong regional aesthetic, like a strong accent, makes something interesting but easy to misinterpret. In The Hurricane Notebook, unlike typical Southern Gothics, there is no theme of natural decay; rather, the characters are decaying, while the natural world around them flourishes, unbothered.
Elizabeth’s central concerns—redemption and the human capacity for evil—are paradigmatic Southern Gothic themes. Similarly type-typical is her propensity for discussing universal themes of love, guilt, and human nature, using overtly religious terminology and metaphor. Many of her questions—in fact, her deepest questions—are religious in nature, and her search for penance and redemption, while not confidently Christian, is no secular journey. Here we might make a comparison to writers like Walker Percy, John Updike, perhaps even Flannery O’Connor (though O’Connor’s writing differs from Elizabeth M.’s in most other ways). But while fascinated with God and evil, the writing in the notebook is not what one could call orthodox Christianity; it is haunted by these ideas but reflects a spirit uncertain of how to approach them. Elizabeth was heavily influenced by existentialist philosophy and themes of absurdism, and in these ways carries on the torch of Sherwood Anderson and Cormac McCarthy.
The characters of The Hurricane Notebook with whom Elizabeth discusses these ideas are likely the most obvious markers of the Southern Gothic nature of the work. Unlike her depiction of her sister, Sarah, or her friend, Joshua, Elizabeth’s portrayal of her interlocutors—coworkers, college acquaintances, mysterious strangers—are essentially one dimensional. Among those she debates, only her old mentor, Simon, to a degree, marks a partial exception. Her primary interest in keeping a record of these interactions seems to clearly be the ideas discussed therein. The result is that these characters are, for the reader, reduced to a single idea. If there were real individuals behind these characters, they seem to have disappeared into the single thought that Elizabeth associated with their persons. This is one of the primary identifying features of Gothic literature—featuring “grotesques” to keep the reader uneasy. Unlike a typical Gothic, however, our protagonist does not become more distorted, more grotesque, as the story goes on. Instead, the notebook conveys her attempt to arrest her own movement toward grotesquery.
However, what struck me initially about The Hurricane Notebook, once all the pages were in order and all the shorthand translated, was that it has a very classical structure. In particular, the journals can be read like a Greek tragedy, in which guilt and fate are discovered together. That is, the reader knows of the terrible event that has occurred in Elizabeth’s life, and it’s clear early on from the entries that she is suffering with a sort of depression; yet, beyond these relative superficialities, Elizabeth does not, initially, actually write very much about the event. And so, the impact of the death on Elizabeth is slowly revealed to readers of the journals as Elizabeth acquires greater understanding of life, relationships, and human nature. It is not hard to imagine that this tragic structure was, if not intentional, a natural subconscious effect of her immersion in the classical world. Elizabeth knew Greek and Latin, she knew the great tragedies and comedies, she knew Greek and Roman philosophy; she was already thinking like an Ancient, and no doubt her writing naturally followed suit. It may, in fact, have been intentional—a sort of device for framing her musings, to aid her own investigations into these deep philosophical questions.
For an interesting literary comparison, one might look at Donna Tartt’s inaugural novel The Secret History (1992). Like The Hurricane Notebook, Tartt’s book also has an overtly tragic structure, but in this case expertly transposed into the form of a modern novel—a structure made even more obvious by the fact that the story focuses on a small group of young classics students who meet in Greek class. Also like Elizabeth’s journals, Tartt’s novel focuses largely on the post-tragedy condition of this group of students, especially on their guilt and the subsequent personal unraveling occasioned by this guilt. Despite these similarities, it should be noted that we have no reason to believe Elizabeth M. ever read The Secret History. Throughout her journals Elizabeth M. refers to almost no contemporary literature, preferring to get her fill of fiction from the classics, and such a story of sin and undoing would surely have been mentioned by our author at least once somewhere in her writings.
One obvious, and important, difference between The Hurricane Notebook and The Secret History is the trajectories of the characters. In Tartt’s novel, guilt is shoved under the furniture, and the result is the eventual rotting, a dissolving into something near irredeemable, of each of the main characters. Elizabeth M.’s journals show no sign of such evasive maneuvers; indeed, our mysterious writer forcefully and repeatedly commands herself to face her guilt (or what she believes to be her guilt) honestly—“No lies.” The results of these diametrically opposed responses to terrible guilt are equally opposed outcomes. Unlike Oedipus, she refuses to take her eyes out, and forces herself to see the truth she had suppressed so long. Rather than rotting from the inside out—an ending typical of a classical tragedy—Elizabeth experiences deep intellectual and spiritual growth, even as she walks close to, or perhaps even dances with, madness.
Some readers, after having read The Hurricane Notebook, may want to make a case for other genres. I do not take myself to have covered all, or even most, of the important literary elements of Elizabeth M.’s writings. It is clear, however, that the writings were intended to be a record, not a masterpiece or authoritative statement. It also seems—evidenced by the stylistic changes that progress over the course of the book—that this manuscript was possibly written over the course of years. Such evolutions of style add yet another layer of difficulty when it comes to genre categorization. What begins as almost straightforwardly a philosophical novel is soon punctuated with mysterious letters, ruminations about her friend and sister, flashbacks, poetry, and the slow burn of deepening anxiety. By the end of the manuscript, scenes come at us quickly in the form of four-page chapters seemingly disconnected from the primary narrative. But the connection is, of course, Elizabeth herself. The Hurricane Notebook, ultimately, is a record of an individual trying to pull all the experiences of her life into a story that makes sense to her. And maybe there is not yet a genre for a work like that. Maybe this is the first of a new genre.