‘An essayistic exploration of what we might mean by justice’ – The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson

mntrpAfter the blazing critical success of Nelson’s memoir The Argonauts a couple of years ago (that book, her ninth, represented Nelson’s long-awaited breakthrough into the UK market), we’ve finally we’ve gotten hold of her 2007 memoir, The Red Parts – a text that, like The Argonauts, while it’s autobiographical, is nonetheless more contemplative and less arc-driven than the word ‘autobiography’ might suggest. And, indeed, the ‘autobiography’ in the book’s title isn’t Nelson’s own, but that of a trial: the belated murder trial of the man accused of killing Nelson’s twenty-three year old aunt, Jane Mixer, back in 1969. The Red Parts, then, is the telling of that trial, as well as, or even primarily, the analysis of Nelson’s own state of mind before, during, and subsequent to the trial; it’s an essayistic exploration of what we might mean by justice, by trauma, by retribution, grief, anger and guilt, and it’s a story of a disintegrated family thrust together again, temporarily, under the eyes of the nation as the case unfolds.

After Jane died, it was commonly held that her murder was one of a number – the Michigan Murders – committed by serial killer John Collins, though Jane’s case itself was never official solved. In 2004, Nelson is contacted by a detective who has, unbeknownst to Jane’s family, been working on the case for the past five years: DNA evidence suggests that the killer was, in fact, one Gary Earl Leiterman, whose subsequent trial and conviction becomes the subject of The Red Parts (as well as of a rather lurid-sounding TV true crime show, 48 Hour Mystery, for which Nelson is interviewed). The call shocks Nelson, as she herself has spent the last several years investigated her aunt’s death as the subject of a poetry collection – 2005’s Jane: A Murder. As The Argonauts started with Nelson’s relationship with the transgender artist Harry Dodge, but expended into a much broader discursive look at queer family life, the murder trial gives The Red Parts a loose framework, but the book’s soul is all about Nelson’s unease with the entire situation: Leiterman’s culpability, her family’s agenda, her own relationship with the death of an aunt she’d never actually met, the ethics of telling a life, and the existential complexities of mourning and moving on.

The book is short and extremely intense; it not only details what’s known of Jane’s death – so perhaps avoid if you’re particularly squeamish – but, more significantly, it’s a forensic study of the writer’s, and her family’s, emotional state(s) at the time, which isn’t, of course, all sunny optimism. Nelson explains that she wrote it in a burst after the trial ended:

‘I felt an intense rush to record all the details before being swallowed up, be it by anxiety, grief, amnesia or horror; to transform myself or my material into an aesthetic object, one which might stand next to, or in for, or as the last impediment to, the dull speechlessness that makes remembering and formulating impossible.’

Anxiety and the rest certainly feature: the characters’ temporal distance from the events with which the trial is concerned means that they all question what they’re even doing there even before they have to consider what, if anything, will be the outcome for them – will a conviction, over thirty years later, provide anything in the way of closure? (Short answer: not really.) But ‘all the details’ is an expansive term: Nelson uses the book, too, to explore associatively her family history – her parents’ divorce, her father’s death, her mother’s unsettling second marriage, her sister’s rebellious youth, and her own relationships, going into most detail about a junkie boyfriend and her recent breakup with an unnamed man in the film industry, a breakup that combines with the toll of the trial to result in what reads as her own breakdown. It’s no easy read, but its honesty is as compelling as the horror of the murder itself.

Nelson is also a master stylist – hardly shocking for a poet – and the prose here is beautiful, especially at its most thematically bleak: describing the solemn folding and unfolding at the trial of an old blood-stained towel as if it were a flag, she says,

‘But the flag of what country, I cannot say. Some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their graves, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.’

This fear – that there’s no meaning to grief, no surpassing it, no recovery – suffuses the book; Nelson says over and over that she’s not a believer in storytelling as a recuperative tool in the processing of trauma. The Red Parts is a record of bewilderment, unhappiness and confusion, rather than a handbook on self-expression as a cathartic tool. She wants to move past this, but she knows that ‘what I want is impossible’; that she can ‘rinse each sentence clean’ as often as she likes, but telling the story will never enable her to walk out of it. In that respect, The Red Parts is audacious: it’s disavowing the popular modus operandi of the bereavement memoir and of the true crime account – neither this book, nor Jane, is a shortcut to a different existential state. And yet it’s a stunning read: brutal, deeply contemplative, and yet irreverent, it gives voice to the messiness and complexity of mourning, particularly intergenerational mourning, without making any concessions to literary norms.

Any Cop?: Brilliant and thought-provoking.


Valerie O’Riordan

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