The Space Between

Limbo BY Dan Fox. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions. 120 pages. $14.
The cover of Limbo

Limbo might be a dim office space found inside a building with a mud-colored marble facade in downtown Brooklyn, past a lobby cafeteria fitted with heat lamps and the smell of oil fryers, through a hallway bearing a color portrait of Governor Andrew Cuomo wearing a tight, distant smile and better known as the unemployment office. Unlike purgatory, which per Catholic doctrine is more like a layover for crimes committed in the course of a past life, limbo is a speculative region: of the mind, of time, of thought, of personal agency. It’s a murky suspension of progress. One cannot smell it or taste it, but its presence is unmistakable. Departing limbo: One knows when they’ve moved on and out, but how do you know when you’ve crossed its border? Did my visit to the unemployment office, as a freshly laid-off writer, mark my arrival at the state of limbo? Or was this just the clearest manifestation of it? How long had I been here?

“Serious time spent between jobs” is just one of the manifestations of this state that the critic Dan Fox offers up in Limbo. Fox’s second book is a concise collection of writing on a sprawling topic that is neither here nor there—part impressionistic memoir, part catalog of limbo as a cultural concept. As in his 2016 debut, Pretentiousness, the frieze coeditor likes to undermine the dominant associations with his term of choice, optimistically recontextualizing it through a slew of references from pop culture, literary theory, TV shows, and his own experiences. Fox approaches the quagmire that is limbo with his fingers crossed. It’s not a metaphysical Bermuda Triangle, he argues, but a necessary layover each of us will encounter at some time in our lives, perhaps multiple times. As a critic, Fox scales the concept up to any cultural cycle, be it art, literature, or society. Something good can come from it, like, say, an unemployment check or a chance to reset your creative circuits. Kick your feet up and relax.

Limbo does feel like the arch-metaphor for our age of extremities: one where a majority of the world’s population is more accustomed to stagnancy, disorder, and statelessness than the clichéd ideals of growth, efficiency, and security. For those of us who have accepted the former as the only way things will be, Fox’s Limbo is presented as a “companion for the stuck.” It’s a modest offering considering both the boundlessness and relevance of his chosen subject. More accurately, the book reads like one writer’s exercise in managing his own states of limbo: the anxieties of being an expat, a pervasive sense of longing for a brother who chose a life at sea, and the timeless state of writer’s block.

Fox sets forth from this state of “blockage,” which he describes in a flurry of idiomatic descriptions:

I felt I was in No-Man’s Land, the Twilight Zone, the Upside Down, the wasteland, the badlands and the boonies. On the sidelines, on the bench, on hold, on standby, out-of-sync, in the wings, up the creek, in a ditch, in a fix, in a funk, in statis, in suspended animation. Muddled and moribund, mudbound in muddy waters. Clogged, congested, confounded, choked-off, jammed, stumped, stonewalled and stymied. Flummoxed, bamboozled and blocked. Frog in the throat. Bone in the gullet. Crashed into a wall. Also: dithering, floating, unanchored, unmoored, untethered, blown on the breeze. Caught between a rocky trope and a hard cliché. Stuck in limbo.

If any of these moods sound familiar, raise your hand. Or better yet, share it as a status. The internet: Also limbo?

As a critic of visual art, Fox appears to be drawn to the challenge of describing limbo aesthetically. His visualizes its form, describe its opaque architecture as if it were a sculpture in a gallery (he even compares limbo to the nothingness of the white cube). Limbo, he writes, is “an extraterritoriality without walls, without corners, windows, entrances or exits. . . . As ocean and desert wilderness. Or a blind-black void that has swallowed all light and matter and threatens a sublime death.” But what he’s describing is the definition of limbo as it has been handed down to us nearly five centuries after its arrival as a legalistic Catholic hypothesis (see: The Limbo of Infants). When he situates limbo in our confused present, he demeans the metaphor itself, announcing that limbo is now “a secular nothing into which you can drop anything.” So how, he asks, can you define it at all?

The assumption here is that if one can define limbo, chart its borders, one can reclaim limbo, and scrub the fear and uncertainty from its specter. There is a sense that Fox isn’t up to the task of such definition. The bulk of his text reads like an act of delegation to other writers preoccupied with this nebulous form. Limbo may be a central fascination for most writers, but only few can make poetry out of it. Pinter calls it a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older.” André Breton displaces his Nadja into its abyss: “I am the soul in limbo.” And even Rod Serling made it an eerie platform from which to stage his stories describing “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” Kafka, Lynch, Tarkovsky, Beckett, and Jordan Peele are credited by Fox for pushing our understanding of limbo into “new forms.” No writer put it in terms more human, or honest, than Coleridge: “’Tis a strange place, this Limbo!”

This strange place doesn’t look so strange as Fox works his way through it. His most direct definition of limbo strips it of its exotic aura. Limbo, he writes, “scales from the minor anxious withdrawal brought about by a broken smartphone device to . . . the months, years, letting a past relationship fade so that another can take colour. Limbo is a videogame, pulp fiction, a self-aggrandizing surrealist’s literary fantasy. It’s a way to describe modernist fantasies of cool affect.” Fox’s logic is stretched thin in such attempts at extrapolation. If limbo is everywhere, isn’t it nowhere?

The uncertainty that is limbo nearly clouds out the differentiating light that Fox promised to cast on it. (Ironically, the scattered style of Fox’s writing is a better testimony to limbo’s very real gravitational force on our lives than his literary analysis.) From this angle, Fox’s conception of limbo looks more like emancipation—a condition of being released. It’s a site for growth, artistic and personal. Although limbo is often imagined as a barren realm that strips its occupants of agency, what if it’s the only place where the mind can flourish? “The unknown can affirm life with negative shapes,” Fox writes, citing the “negative capability” of Keats who found inspiration in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”

In one of Limbo’s few attempts to establish limbo as a site of political possibility, and a modern condition for the millions of migrants displaced around the globe, Fox draws on the work of Wilson Harris, whose writing on colonialism and slavery sought to recast the brutality of middle passage as a necessary waypoint in a journey toward salvation and the creation of “a new architecture of cultures.” This reassembly of dire circumstance into promise is very much Fox’s primary effort with Limbo, if not its purpose exactly. There’s something thorny about of a white critic picking up on Harris’s theme as optimistically as Fox does here, when he chimes in that “Limbo was a space of productive uncertainty, an opportunity to world-build.” Looking past this, however, the idea jumps out like a shout in a book that otherwise reads like a murmur. Why can’t limbo be a fertile ground for big thinking? If limbo is uncertainty itself, then it is also a place where no outcome is fixed.

In the final third of the book, Fox describes a journey he undertook in 2008, “tramping” onboard a container ship from England to Shanghai. Instead of a beachy sabbatical from his work at frieze, Fox decided to explore the sea like his older brother Karl, working as a boat pilot for hire. Karl’s absence from Fox’s life has made something mythic of the ocean, an almost too obvious physical representation of limbo on Earth. But Fox describes the journey movingly, taking note of the phosphorescent plankton that materialized like “glow-stick sluice” in the South China Sea. Fox spends a “sweltering afternoon” in the Arabian Sea sitting at the prow of the ship, hallucinating the names of former classmates. “I could smell friends and feel sensations that had long disappeared from my body.” The dissociation that Fox finds on the ocean is also a new perspective, the kind afforded to castaways, to minds and bodies in perpetual motion.

At sea, the “hallucinatory truth is clearest,” Fox writes at the end of his book. He describes standing on the bow of the city-block length ship somewhere in the Indian Ocean. “With no clouds, no land masses, no objects . . . I experienced a vivid sensation that the vessel was not moving.” In between world-building and despair, it’s this final possibility of limbo that comes across as the most edifying for the stuck. Movement doesn’t always neatly cohere with the sensation of progress. Sometimes it feels like a very specific kind of nothing. And likewise, sometimes the feeling of limbo might be better thought of as a gentle disruption, or resistance, to the forward motion of society.

Can limbo ever be made legible? Is this “extraterritoriality” as Fox alternatively describes it, something that can ever be mapped? Limbo is hazy, streaked through with moments of clarity, and mostly fuzzy when you look at it straight on. The critic Brian Dillon writes in Essayism that the essay is “a form with ambitions to be unformed . . . with a sense of constant dispersal and coalescence” and in this, Limbo is honest in its ambitions, an accurate itinerary of the journey between thought and the page itself. After describing his container-ship journey halfway around the world, Fox writes of an inability to summarize his time on board. With his body on land, his memories remain at sea. With the exception of stark details (a car rocking in a container, an irritable cabin mate) no meaning can be wrung from his mind. What a strange place. Limbo, at last.

Nathan Taylor Pemberton is a writer and editor from Florida, who lives in Brooklyn.