I Am His Other
Know the Night: a Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours
By Maria Mutch
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 204 pp. $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Kelly Davio
Form mirrors content in Know The Night, Maria Mutch’s lyrical, debut memoir. The story of a mother’s experience parenting a boy with a range of special needs, Know the Night traces the years in which Mutch spent many seemingly endless nights awake with her sleepless son. Part chronological, part cyclical, and part freely associative, Mutch’s reflections on her relationship with her son Gabriel progress through chapters named for the hours between midnight and dawn. Across these small hours, Mutch’s story unfolds, from a tragic miscarriage in her first attempts to become a parent to the joy of Gabriel’s birth, and from Gabriel’s diagnosis with Down syndrome and autism through his loss—or perhaps abandonment—of the ability to speak. The narrative moves as though through snapshots of memory that are by turns clear and blurry: now exhausted and hazy, now cogent and forceful.
The repetitive nature of the late nights during the two years when Gabriel rises in the dark for his own inscrutable but deeply felt purposes finds its mirror in the book’s cycle of internal chapter breaks. Throughout the memoir, chapters are broken into subsections repeatedly titled “The Ice,” “provisions,” and “figments,” which follow, in fluctuating and evolving patterns, Mutch’s reflections on her domestic life, her dreamlike visions of the natural world, and her fixation on Admiral Richard Byrd, the famed Antarctic explorer.
The inclusion of Byrd’s story is one of the most striking features of Know the Night; Mutch weaves her own life story together with events from Byrd’s solo attempt to overwinter in a sunless Antarctic hut during the year 1934. From his radio transmissions and lists of provisions to his brushes with death in the Antarctic cold, Mutch lays down Byrd’s story alongside her own, leaving it to the reader to draw emotional relevance from their points of similarity; rarely does she explain confluences between their stories. Instead, she suggests, through these side-by-side juxtapositions, that Byrd in his loneliness knew the same isolation she experiences in her work as a parent, and often the parallels between the mother’s and explorer’s stories have a poetic resonance:
350 candles, 10 boxes of meta tablets, 3 flashlights…(t)he means, Byrd says, of a secure and profound existence…clutching the bag full of diapers, wipes, clothing, juice, snacks, picture symbols, storybooks, the spoon with the fat handle…I have felt, for a moment or even two, invincible.
Some threads of Byrd’s narrative are flattened by Mutch’s loose paraphrases of his memoir, Alone (1938), and of his biographers. While we learn of Byrd’s actions, diet, and routine, Mutch does little investigation into his internal life or even his motivations for his six-month stint in the Antarctic. He never emerges as a fully delineated and relatable character but remains a shadow figure. Though Mutch devotes a great deal of time to Byrd, the fact that he appears only in broad, paraphrased sketches makes him appear more like a device than a character.
But whether the effect of Byrd’s story is as satisfying as it should be, what is clear is that Mutch’s foreshortening of characters is a conscious stylistic choice that extends throughout the book; even characters in her own life story appear, at times, as through a haze. Mutch’s husband—Gabriel’s father—and their second-born son are both referenced only by first initial rather than by name, and they enter and exit the narrative only insofar as they impinge upon the central story of Mutch’s parental relationship to Gabriel. The other family members feel rather like planets that orbit and exert a slight gravitational pull on Mutch and Gabriel; they don’t influence the narrative directly. So too is the presence of anyone outside the family unit relatively small: special educators, friends, and social workers make appearances notable primarily for their brevity.
If Mutch’s decision to focus so intently on a single relationship runs the risk of obfuscating others, it is that same quality of close attention that gives the book its tension. Mutch’s highly curated selection of scenes from life freights each incident and image with an obsessive quality. For example, many of the words Mutch deploys in the memoir focus on her son’s lack of words. A masterful wordsmith herself, Mutch not unexpectedly circles again and again around the problem of Gabriel’s inability to communicate verbally. She meditates on Gabriel’s silence and on utterances that are not silent but are also not speech: “the sound emanating from him seemed ancient, fermented, something dug up.” She ascribes communicative meaning to her son’s behaviors “of extension: how to place the urges in his body into the atmosphere and see the consequence in the people around him.” At times, the reader becomes keenly aware that the inner life Mutch assigns to Gabriel is tremendously like her own: both are possessed by an intense and frustrated desire to communicate through words. Her invention of her child’s unknowable life is at once beautiful and unsettling, as when Mutch says, “I go to write I am his mother, except that what I write is I am his other.”
If this intense attention to a single topic is unnerving it also casts beautiful detail in high relief; out of Mutch’s close observation of the smallest images arise moments of truly exquisite prose, enriched with inventive and precise language, as in her report of an unsettling dream:
I tumbled briefly into dreams, and an old man met me there. He drove a crooked finger into my abdomen and stirred. When I gasped awake, there was the static of people whispering, the shifting of the boat. I watched a moth extinguish itself on a bulb. I was two months pregnant.
In such moments, when Mutch’s full lyrical powers express themselves, the incidents she reports have the stand-alone quality of flash fiction and the sensory quality of poetry. It is here that Know The Night is at its best, for these moments of beauty give the reader a clearer window into the intimate details of Mutch’s world than do her reflections on Byrd or the minutiae of daily life.
These lyrical and inventive scenes gain particular poignancy when Mutch picks up yet another thread in the memoir: Gabriel’s passion for music. Mutch describes him as experiencing a kind of catharsis when attending live jazz performances or listening to records on the turntable in his room. Mutch writes of playing a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth for her son:
[A]s the first movement proceeds to the second, (Gabriel) starts to rock. I imagine Beethoven composing, the pen’s scratches and the ringing in his ears.…He forges a trail for the musician or the listener to follow, even the ones two centuries later. He says, follow me or be lost in this place; he knows how to endure the deficits of the body, lovers who slip away, fury that bolts through him and necessitates his apologies.
Just as appreciating music provides Gabriel with a way of engaging the world outside himself, so too do Mutch’s riffs, not unlike musical experimentation themselves, connect Gabriel’s story and her own experience to the world outside their family’s orbit. Often in Mutch’s narrative, people outside the family appear as an undifferentiated and threatening mass, as when, on a crowded ferry ride, Much reports, “I want to shrink from…the gaze of the nearby strangers who will not realize the dark of the secret society that’s just been revealed.” Yet when music provides Gabriel with a means of connecting with others, so too does that connection and the empathy it generates allow Mutch’s narrative to open outward.
In these moments, the memoir enfolds the possibilities of others’ unique experiences into a story that began as one of isolation. If memoir is an exercise in finding connection between one’s own story and the world, Mutch succeeds not only in allowing the reader access to her story and Gabriel’s, but also in imagining the possibilities of other lonely worlds, from Byrd’s to Beethoven’s, and perhaps even to our own.
Kelly Davio is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (2013) and the forthcoming novel-in-poems Jacob Wrestling. She is the poetry editor of the Tahoma Literary Review and the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Review.