Moving On

The problem has to do, as it always does, with language. In When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, Naja Marie Aidt’s reckoning with the untimely death of her son, Carl, she acknowledges this fact early and often. “My language is all dried up,” she writes in the book’s opening pages. “I vomit over art.” This weariness with written expression is born from the age-old struggle to put words to the most important and mysterious aspects of humanity: our feelings on love, our search for higher meaning, our final demise. It is, she admits, a complaint as old as writing itself.

What makes Aidt’s treatment of this potentially shopworn theme feel fresh is both the ferocity with which she spells it out and, more importantly, her relentlessness in trying to overcome the problem. While other writers might simply bemoan language’s inadequacy, Aidt establishes this fact and attempts to move beyond it by drawing on an imposingly diverse array of fragments which she pastes together to form the book’s text. An ongoing account of the night her son died alternates with dispatches on her present-day struggles, dream diaries, excerpts from eulogies, quotations from other writers, and random outbursts of rage, grief, and disbelief. Even the fonts are constantly alternating, shuffling between roman, italics, and bolded text, the spacing and indentation switched up as Aidt requires. This strategy, she explains, is a necessary feature of the literature of grief. “Most of what I read about raw grief and lamentation is fragmentary. It’s chaotic, not artistic,” she writes. “Often the writer doesn’t have the strength to complete the fragment.” What results from Aidt’s collage, though, is artful and is only seemingly frantic. Beneath the surface lies a highly controlled text that aims to bring her son to life on the page, and thus allow herself to move on with her own life.

This last goal is the one that Aidt is most ambivalent about—not only is it not so easily realized, it also isn’t necessarily something she desires. Aidt’s book stands out for her rejection of the standard narrative of grief and recovery, in which the author’s healing comes from forgetting the person they’ve lost. Not willing to let go of Carl, she prefers to continue on instead in a state of limbo, although she does make some small gestures toward healing. For example, she takes some solace in what her nephew calls the “grieving group,” but though she describes it as a community of mourners who “have become melded together into a single organism,” it’s clear that Aidt herself does not really feel this sense of connection. “So our friends keep us alive, while nothing happens,” she writes. “Only the burning pain happens.” Unable to find consolation in the company of others, she is left to her own devices as she goes through her daily existence in a state of living death. “I want to be alone,” she writes in one emblematic passage, where a depressive Aidt can only offer a series of uninflected statements about the stagnation of her life. “I sit at the table and stare out into space. I have no needs. I have no desire. I force myself to eat. I force myself to sleep. In the evening I drink wine so that I can fall asleep. I drink myself drunk.” The vividness of the picture comes not so much from what she tells us as, paradoxically, from her flattened tone and constant repetitions.

As painful as that state of nothingness is, by continuing to exist in its timeless present she is able to retain the memory of Carl and thus, in a sense, keep him alive. “I’m afraid that he will disappear from me more and more each day,” she worries. “That he will disappear in step with my healing. It’s unbearable. And maybe the only way for me to heal.” Aidt tries to achieve a delicate balance between holding on to the memory of her son while continuing with her own life. But by the end of the book, the equilibrium is lost. Aidt shows no signs of leaving her dead-end situation or abandoning her commitment to her son’s memory, even though it’s clear that living in such a state is untenable.

One and a half years after Carl’s death, time remains at a standstill for Aidt. Nothing moves forward. She craves solitude and finds that everyday objects hold no meaning for her, the words they are called equally hollow. “Nothing I see makes an impression on me, nothing I see gladdens me,” she writes near the end of the book. “I see a tree, a person, I confirm: a tree, a person. Nothing penetrates, nothing leaves an impression on me, nothing interests me.” In constructing her narrative of grief and non-recovery, she has frozen her lifeless self indefinitely on the page, and with it the memory of her much lamented, prematurely departed son—the two achievements are inseparable. Though this might seem like a failure of her project, in many ways Aidt has achieved the goal she set for herself: This state of living death is simply the price she must pay. “His time and his life are folded into me,” she concludes. “No one should forget him. Not as long as I am alive.”

Andrew Schenker lives in upstate New York.