1. “There’s something still halfhearted about Washington,” writes the narrator of Grief, Andrew Holleran‘s slim, beautiful 2006 novel, “as if the country cannot make up its mind about government itself—a city that, block by block, weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness.”
2. That’s as good a one-sentence summary of Washington, D.C., in fiction as you’re likely to come across, mostly because of the first part, about “government itself.” The second part of the sentence isn’t unique to Washington: Every city “weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness.” The grandeur-shabbiness divide is what makes cities appealing to noir writers, who like to show how easy it is to shift from one to the other. But Grief isn’t a noir but an elegy—a gay writer’s lament for the AIDS-stricken age he survived. And the difference between a noir and an elegy here is government—the trappings of structure and authority. The federal city helps him keep it together. This novel couldn’t possibly be set anywhere else.
3. Still, the city is unstable: It can’t make up its mind about itself, as the narrator says, and neither can he. He walks a lot through D.C. to sort it out—it’s as walkable a city as San Francisco, but rarely gets described that way in fiction—and he tends to settle on the museums and monuments. Words Holleran returns to when he describes the city: cemetery, tomb. “At night the National Museum looked like an enormous mausoleum,” he writes. Later, he’ll equate it to a “parlor where a body was laid out amidst the lilies.” A friend, responding to a suggested museum visit, cries, “Museums are morgues!” But the narrator keeps coming back.
4. Elizabeth Hand, reviewing the novel in the Washington Post: “I have never read a novel that so powerfully and movingly evokes D.C.—its spirit, its ideal essence.” Thomas Mallon, in a dust-jacket blurb: “[Holleran has] a superb feeling for the real Washington, D.C.” Are Hand and Mallon putting a positive spin on things, or do they mean to say that D.C.’s essence is embalming fluid?
5. Because even sunlight is grim in Grief‘s vision of Washington. A friend recalls how he attended so many funerals for AIDS victims in Rock Creek Cemetery one summer he picked up a suntan.
6. Holleran’s method for enlivening this tableau and holding the reader’s interest is to withhold information about the narrator. We know he’s come to D.C. after the death of his mother, but the circumstances aren’t entirely clear. We know he’s teaching a class at a local university but not what it’s on. We also know he’s naive—he gets scammed out of $20 shortly after his arrival. But he learns. And as he acclimates to the city we get a more and more precise picture of where, exactly, he’s renting. Ultimately his wanderings have a maplike precision, right down to the protesters he routinely sees on the curbsides.
7. He can crack a joke. He spies a middle-aged man cruising the men’s rooms at the university “like a lobster fisherman checking his traps.” Eventually can crack a joke, rather: That one’s on page 110.
8. The strange thing about Grief, as Washington novels go, is that it makes little effort to get past the federal city, the L’Enfant plan and the monuments, the way a “realistic” novel about the city might. The narrator is constricted to a tourist-friendly sliver of Northwest, the better to show how he’s clinging to safe structures.
9. The major themes of Grief, according to the remarkably thorough Wikipedia article on the novel: “Struggles and Hardships,” “Mortality of a Middle Aged Man,” “Loss of a Loved One,” “Premature Death,” “Family Member Death.” The anonymous article author gets an A for effort, but these are all subsets of the main theme of the book, which Holleran already made pretty clear in the title.
10. Still, the very fact that a 150-page, moderately well-reviewed novel inspires that kind of attention says something. Daphne Merkin praised the book in a 2007 New York magazine article about underrated novels. “It’s bone-spare but plangent with meaning—the kind of novel that would be immediately hailed if it were written by a laconic European writer.” Given the kind of attention laconic European writers get, Grief never stood a chance.
11. It’s not hard to see why. I mean, the title.
12. But not just the title. There’s a strict formality to the novel’s structure amid its elegant details—appropriate for the city it imagines, but a hard sell for any reader looking for a realistic portrait of the city or a conventional rendering of the novel’s subject. (A two-star Amazon review: “I am an aging gay man. I have lost both my parents and have buried two lovers. I know well what grief is—and this is not it.”) The narrator is making his way through the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, the kind of thing only characters in novels do, as a symbolic gesture. But it works because Lincoln’s grief in those letters is so compelling, and the assurance the narrator receives from them is so palpable—her mood snaps perfectly with the mood of the entire book. “All those dashes and exclamation points!” his landlord says. And all that death inside. He could be describing a book of Emily Dickinson poems.
13. Mary Todd Lincoln: “For sorrow, such as ours, there is no balm, the grave and Heaven, with reunion with our loved ones, can alone heal, bleeding, broken hearts.” It’s a line, the narrator tells us, “I’d decided to learn by heart.”
14. Holleran announces the book’s main question early on: Is grief a process—something that is eventually done with—or a perpetual state of being? Grief is like living in fiction, Holleran suggests, because in grief we always have a story to tell ourselves—something about the person we lost, or what the loss did to us. And the opposite of grief, in the novel’s reckoning, isn’t happiness but the simple business of living—the ability to go on without massaging a narrative out of our past. “You can have one nice day here after another,” the landlord tells the narrator, encouraging him to plant roots in D.C. But having one nice day after another would involve sacrificing the story he’s writing in his head.
15. This is what fiction does: It frames and organizes us, becomes a placeholder for our emotions, gives it a shape. When a critic says that a book is “too formal,” what is it the critic is complaining about? That it’s pushing our capacity for emotional response off the page? Or that it offers itself as a repository for emotions we’d prefer not to acknowledge? Grief is a deceptively humble but wholly successful proof that it can be the latter.