Cultivating Loneliness

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The Unified Field of Loneliness
By Jared Marcel Pollen
Crowsnest Books, 2019
186 Pages, $15.95
Review by Brian Birnbaum

One of the practical difficulties in reviewing a story collection is deciding which stories to focus on. Allotting each story equal weight in words would let the critique wax a little prolix. This issue was resolved, however, upon finishing the eponymous closer of Jared Pollen’s debut collection, The Unified Field of Loneliness (Crowsnest Books, 2019), which inspired me to do something perhaps a bit unorthodox: review the collection through that single story.

But quality alone can’t explain the story’s utility as a prism through which its preceding titles can be gleaned. A triumph of thematic climax and singularity, Pollen’s titular story — “The Unified Field of Loneliness” — carries the collection’s leitmotif of axiomatic loneliness like a baton across the finish line, closing an exhaustive foray into human forlornity in perfect stride.

Pollen builds on the theme of loneliness through variations on tone, structure, and subject matter. “Map & Territory” satirizes Pollen’s parody of Facebook or Twitter—The Network, as a minor cultural critic, undermines its specious mission statement in favor of disseminating its true societal impact: physical isolation and an unwitting loss of agency. “Night of Long Knives” distills the terror attacks on Paris through a dead-end relationship between two young expats, conveying the human banalities that persist despite collective crisis. “In a Nutshell” captures a college-bound stripling stuck in serious traffic with his family—in second person, with no paragraph breaks — prevailing as one of the strongest stories in the collection.

From the first line, the reader is dropped into an emotional war-zone — a cluster of characters and their struggle with what’s referred to as it. The characters deal with it through long walks, insatiable wanderlust, or elusive sources of transcendence — which the characters then communicate with each other through phone calls, letters, text messages, creating an associative lattice between characters separated by varying degrees whose comprehensive web of connections can only be known, I’m convinced, by Pollen himself.

In this way, Pollen’s pen becomes a camera whose transitions are cued by these tangible moments of connection, these small moments in which loneliness is triumphed by shared words, language, meanings. And yet, other times, he breaks solipsism through narrative omnipotence, using similar yet unshared thoughts to transition characters:

“But whereas Lewis went out and watched the cream-legged girls lay out in the park, Edward would free fall through photo blogs for hours, mostly looking at pictures of tastefully naked women, because pornography had a way of only making him feel hollow, devoid of real intimacy, next to which coitus was candy in place of real nourishment.”

Speaking of turning a phrase, if prose were pugilism, Pollen has put on his 8 oz. gloves, prepared to spar with the best of them. Such efflorescent barrages of pith flower his collection: “The humidity hangs on to the evening, a wet breath against the skin,” Pollen writes in “Night of Long Knives.” And yet, when it comes to the collection’s eponymous closer, we see him simplifying word choices in favor of complicating emotions, ideas, and meanings:

“These were installations in the running narrative of [Lewis’s] life, the inner novel of which he was the protagonist, moving through the world, wherein everything that happened seemed to happen to him, in the direction of his experience, and everyone around him (his friends, his family, Elyse) were antagonists, people whose existence was scarcely conceivable except in relation to his own. But he was at the same time also the author, the narrator of this protagonist’s experience, the voice that could get close, inside the head, take the shape of experience – even reveal insights about the experience to the protagonist that he himself hadn’t thought of – but never fully become the experience, never break through the cognitive wall of glass.”

Given Jared’s surname, it would only be fitting to translate this as the full bloom of Pollen’s literary flower. It’s as if each story were a distinct cycle in the growth process – this page a spring shower, that line a vernal stalk, the next story a week of strong sunlight.

It’s rare for a young writer to so nakedly reveal the linear nature of their maturation. Such a glimpse into this arduous process only strengthens the collection’s impact, lending momentum to our desire to continue reading his work. Stories like “Map & Territory” and “Night of Long Knives” do an excellent job of eliciting topical loneliness, distilling spiritual solitude through phenomena unique to our times. But it’s “The Unified Field of Loneliness” that synthesizes the collection’s theme, stood bare in its title, universally relevant. A masterclass in story writing, the story cuts through contemporary vanities, straight to that which imbues our malaise, our despondency, our deepest depressions. After portraying loneliness in all its pernicious guises—technological disconnection, fear of violence, xenophobia — this final story draws us into that unfillable hollow at center of us all.

The progression of Pollen’s debut collection, culminating with the titular story, proves the cultivation of not only talent, but also humility — the humility required to go from the author of “Map & Territory” — an impressively parodic yarn — to that of “The Unified Field of Loneliness”—a feat of timeless emotional vulnerability.

As Pollen’s last line goes, “What else would it look like?”




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About Author

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An MFA graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Brian Birnbaum's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Smart Set, The Collagist, Atticus Review, SLAM Magazine, Lit Hub, Political Animal, and more. Brian's first novel, Emerald City, is forthcoming from Dead Rabbits in September 2019. He's a child of Deaf adults (CODA), working in development for the family sign language interpreting business, and lives in Harlem with the writer MK Rainey's dog.

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