About Time: On Marci Vogel’s "Death and Other Holidays"
Marci Vogel | Death and Other Holidays | Melville House | November 13, 2018 | 144 Pages
In Marci Vogel’s novella Death and Other Holidays, linear continuity is interrupted and refracted by grief. During a year spent mourning both her biological father and stepfather, Vogel’s 28-year-old narrator April posits a cosmic, intensely cyclical chronology. Reflecting upon friends and influences, she is conscious of the ways in which her past determines her present, and how her future is inevitable. As weddings and funerals comprise the signposts of time’s passage, April sees herself as operating above—or beyond—two-dimensional time.
April’s time-outside-of-time is enhanced by the narrative’s placement in the Great American Nineties. By setting Death and Other Holidays in 1998, Vogel evokes a purer, starker, more intimate grief than would be possible in contemporary tragedy, one free of the social networks’ performative mourning, exempt from filtered Instagram stories with their choice of five aestheticized fonts. April receives debilitating news within the confinement of a phone booth or alone in a succession of Los Angeles apartments. She scours newspaper obits for structure and quality, periodically dropping old voicemail tapes into her answering machine to hear her father’s voice. In this before-the-fall framework the dead retain an immediate physical essence, yet are difficult to conjure as people, making for unexpected moments of startling clarity as well as the capacity for leisurely reinvention.
This ambience also owes much to the Los Angeles location. April is an L.A. Woman in the tradition of romantically wayward heroines spanning Didion through Liska Jacobs, a worthy addition to the canon of calmly traumatized young women questioning their sanity whilst cooking under the western sun. She loves and yearns for the city, yet experiences unshakeable feelings of displacement wandering from the hills to the beach. April’s year is stagnant in a uniquely Southern California way, emblematic of a desert in which months are indistinguishable and Botox buries any physical hints of aging, a neverland in which “seasonal clocks are set by new lipstick colors.” She and her peers spend stiflingly hot days in cramped cars going nowhere fast on horizonless freeways. One paramour, so inured to the malaise and monotony, falls asleep every time he assumes the driver’s seat, indifferent to the stakes of life or death. “I think it’s not the model so much as how one handles the wheel,” April submits in regard to both men and vehicles.
April isn’t without passion, but her voice bears the vivid disdain of a solitary twenty-something. The structure and tone are reminiscent of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, another novella composed of linked, self-contained first-person meditations delivered from the perspective of a young woman combating trauma through preoccupation. As in Pond, the most dynamic of Vogel’s short chapters subsist as triumphant standalones. In a concise two paragraphs, “Linger” considers physical triggers of memory, wondering when, precisely, people cease to be themselves. In “Swerve,” a lasting relationship is sufficiently formed over a single page of dialogue. The clinical broken narrative of “Heartbreak” begins: “It was the first new dress that Wilson wouldn’t see, black with tiny white polka dots. ‘My husband died yesterday,’ my mother told the saleswoman as she rang up our purchase.” While these brief, pithy episodes together constitute an attenuated plot arc, just as frequently they are deviations from a mean, joy and tribulation in miniature without greater implication.
Vogel’s exposition is reliant upon metaphors, some more trenchant than others. Fluttering insects serve reminders of corporeal futility, death confronting April in hushed household scenes. In another flashback April’s late stepfather—whose death April has ruled “an accident of cells”—compares love to a fly in soup. “‘It comes when you least expect,’ he’d say whenever a date didn’t work out. ‘That doesn’t make it something you should necessarily eat,’ my mother would quip.” A roommate is exasperated by a beetle infestation. “They go against Darwin, these insects,” she despairs. “It’s like survival of the most unfit.”
Death and Other Holidays weaves elements of disparate conversations into single ahistorical dialogues. Remarks upon family gatherings and the Jewish High Holidays border on irony given how April’s year overflows with days of awe and remembrance. It’s difficult to say that she’s moving on or moving forward, because most of the time she isn’t moving at all. She sees neighbors and colleagues painstakingly planning their own funerals and remarks that they have nothing to look forward to. Hyper-aware of the respective positioning of the sun and earth, she deliriously tallies the numberless paradoxes of her own domain, observing people crippled by tics and superstitions, those giving life slowly taking it away.
April is herself a list-making hypochondriac, paranoid about home invasions, furniture arrangement, and skin treatments. If not grief itself, she is defined by a more general feeling of indebtedness. Hours away from her museum job are spent with a rotating cast of interchangeable extended family members, many of whom share first names and only exist off-screen, distinctions inconsequential given their roles. While men are inevitably unbecoming foils of her stepfather, April eyes female relatives for clues about her future self. “She’d do anything for me not to die before she does,” she suspects of her mother, who acquaintances insist April favors. As April diverts her focus to cultivating a believable relationship with a flawed but well-meaning man, coping and maturation begin to manifest in a natural, subtle manner.
If Death and Other Holidays is a minor masterpiece, it’s because it is masterfully minor, a small inquiry into life’s great unknowns. Vogel’s narrator is blessedly devoid of self-pity, making for a pleasant, deeply feminine soliloquy about death and grief. Punctuated by shimmering still lifes and conversational snippets, time both flattens and extends. “It seems to me if you’re really paying attention,” April reflects, “there’s not much dividing what’s happened from what’s going to happen, or even from what might have happened, had things been different.” Time groans on, even when the clocks are broken.