Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning

Rachel Aviv


For three years, Peter Trachtenberg traveled around the world seeking out people in anguish. He looked for those whose suffering transcended “garden-variety sorrow”: Sri Lankan children orphaned by the tsunami; twin girls with a rare genetic disease that made their skin continually blister; Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub. With The Book of Calamities, he attempts to categorize and comprehend their suffering, which he defines as the “experience of chaos,” a “staticky primal layer of experience that is beyond the reach of language.”

Trachtenberg is the author of two other books, The Casanova Complex (1988), an elevated self-help manual about recovering from sex addiction, based on personal experience, and 7 Tattoos (1997), a memoir about his fondness for speed and heroin and his troubled relationship with his parents. In The Book of Calamities, he apologizes for spending so many years languishing in self-hate (he says he attempted suicide, because at the moment it seemed more appealing than folding his laundry) and repeatedly warns that he is a “layman,” not an expert, on the subject of suffering. (Drug addiction and family squabbles, he maintains, are merely ordinary afflictions.) Until a series of tragedies befell a close friend, Trachtenberg says he secretly believed that people suffered for a reason. “It’s mortifying to admit,” he writes, “that it took me until my mid-forties to realize, with the same walleyed astonishment that someone realizes he’s been shot, how arbitrary and irremediable suffering can be.”

Although The Book of Calamities is packaged like just another self-help book—the cover features a puff of clouds, and each chapter proposes an overarching question (“Why Me?” “How Do I Endure?” “What Is Just?” “What Does My Suffering Say About Me?”)—Trachtenberg does not seek to lift his audience’s mood. Instead, the book nudges readers toward depression, but the descent is oddly thrilling. By gathering quotes, theories, and literary references on the subject, Trachtenberg presents suffering as an otherworldly experience, both wretched and sublime. Like death, it is neither understood nor acknowledged by those who have not witnessed it themselves. People could never be happy, he suggests, if they understood others’ pain. We leave sufferers when they still have the “glow” of pain—he finds a perverse gloriousness in trauma at its inception—and return once they’ve recovered, if they ever do.

Trachtenberg focuses on what people think, not feel, when they suffer. His analysis of the story of Job is typical: He shows Job moping around like a sick animal, scratching his sores with a piece of broken pottery and grappling with his stunning fate. Resisting the randomness of such misfortune, Trachtenberg picks over the possibility that Job somehow deserved it, teasing out various scenarios to no avail. “Better to be proved guilty,” he writes, “than to be destroyed without cause: to be made nothing, for nothing.” Throughout, Trachtenberg searches for some way to quantify suffering, to find terms that limit the sense of boundlessness that accompanies it. (In his contribution to the 2004 collection Killing the Buddha, he maps out the Book of Job as a Venn diagram.) The Book of Calamities’s power lies in its subtle repetitions: the vast array of stories sufferers tell themselves, the meticulous ways they sort out their pain. “When we cannot find [order], we invent it,” he writes. “Even a nest of thorns and nettles may be preferable to the terror of the open.”

Advertisement