The Glass Eye
By Jeannie Vanasco
Tin House Books, 2017
280 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Rachel Wooley
“The night before he died, I promised my dad I would write a book for him.”
Over the next ten years, Jeannie Vanasco attempted to fulfill that promise: numerous attempts to write about her father, all called The Glass Eye, followed; this powerful book is the culmination of that project. It is, foremost, a memoir, documenting the life and death of Jeannie’s beloved father through the lens of Jeannie herself. How does she grieve over this tremendous loss? How does she encompass his life story (and hers) in a book? Vanasco acutely and poignantly maps her struggle with the process of writing the book as well as the struggles which make up its content. The title alludes to her father’s “glass” eye, which she only fixated on after he died. “Describing my dad through the metaphor of his eye comes easy; encapsulating him in plain language feels impossible.”
The book isn’t plot driven; it doesn’t try to create a single, simple, chronological narrative. But it is all that much stronger for it. Vanasco obsesses over details, events, conversations—are they remembered correctly? Do they help demonstrate who her father was? What emerges in her attempts to answer these questions is not only a rich portrait of a flawed man who meant the world to his youngest daughter, but a rich portrait of her own humanity.
The memoir is formatted in fragments, or excerpts: memories, conversations, and events which add up to a cohesive (and largely chronological) whole. The form is a beautiful, effective illumination of Vanasco’s process in working through her grief and mental illness, but also in constructing the book. The beginning of each chapter takes us outside the “story,” giving us glimpses into her precise thinking and reasoning and questioning: “To describe my dad accurately may mean displaying his flaws. To describe my dad fairly, the motivation behind his flaws should be shown…Am I displaying my flaws enough?”
Multiple headings appear over the fragments, adding lenses of their own–“Dad,” “Mom,” “Jeanne,” and “Mental Illness”–the last of which emerges more insistently as a presence throughout. Jeanne (without the “I”) is Jeannie’s half-sister, her father’s daughter from a previous marriage, killed in a car crash at age 16 more than two decades before Jeannie’s birth. Vanasco’s quest as an adult to find out more about Jeanne is demonstrative of her own growing mania. She obsesses over coincidences as “signs,” finding recurring patterns and symbols in language and memories. Jeanne becomes an idealized character: one that Vanasco spends years mentally comparing herself to. She recounts it here with such self-awareness and honesty that it almost makes her irrational behavior seem rational:
“I understood [Jeanne’s] death changed his character, affected the father he was to me. I wondered how he mourned her, and if I was mourning the right way. I talked to him every day, cried every day. I needed to mourn him on Jeanne’s behalf, was that it? I don’t know. I loved him. Wasn’t that reason enough?”
The decade that Vanasco took to write this book was, by her own admission, a time during which she “held on to someone who can no longer be held.” In a way, it seems that it took Vanasco this long to internalize the difficult truth that, no matter how strongly she might wish to will him back into her life, her father is gone and she has to let him go. But that may be too tidy a conclusion for a process that still feels ongoing. Mental illness and grief are both incredibly multifaceted do not fold conveniently into life; even when they recede into the background, they may be ever-present. Vanasco’s accomplishment comes in her poignant, effective telling of her own interaction with both, and the effects they had on her life: “as an adult I didn’t think I was hiding an illness, I thought I was hiding grief… explaining grief seems like explaining a joke; it diffuses the intensity of the emotions.”
The Glass Eye doesn’t attempt to explain grief so much as to illuminate it, showing its effects on Jeannie’s life and those connected to her. Despite this, the book is not somber. It doesn’t ask for sympathy or pity. Instead, it invites the reader in to examine, with Vanasco, the nuances of life as a human being searching for meaning, for connections to the people we love, and the moments that stay with us, for whatever reason, long after they’ve passed into memory.