- Plumbing the Tide
This year, three skilled essayists have been looking for ghosts. Phantoms, monsters, creatures sounding from the deep. The writers found shadows with long black tentacles that could slither around you and pull you under. They searched for a self in the throes of disaster and experienced the torture and escape of deafening sound. Two books include monsters that are real; the other signals something more frightening.
In the 11 essays of the collection Ultrasonic, Steven Church reminds us how vulnerable we are to noise. We can close our eyes. We can choose not to touch or taste. Our smelling is weak. But even in the womb, a baby hears before it is born. A fetus senses the hiccups of the world, the sound breaking through the mother’s skin, assaulting it like torture, “her whole body trembling like a tuning fork to the everyday noise of our lives.” The CIA, Church [End Page 203] informs us, exploited this sensitivity to sound by blasting the music of Metallica during Guantanamo interrogations.
But sound is double-edged. With it, we know a fetus is healthy, with the pixels created by waves bouncing off the child, forming a discernible shape. Sound is how we retrieve memories, or gauge the quality of character by tenor, or speak or laugh or write by the inner ear. Church’s book is an assembly of loosely connected essays that are searchings, soundings, and ruminations in the style of Montaigne. Church follows the mind-stream on the page, trekking after the ideas and emotions that occur to him, trusting in his brain to be interesting, revealing, and vulnerable enough to reward a reader’s investment.
“I believe most of us are fishing for ghosts,” he writes, “those spectral ideas about life and death that hover at the edge of our consciousness or just beneath the surface of our waking life.” Like Frank and Evans, Church is searching for a specter in the fathomless depths.
He progresses like the plodding bass in an overture, a relentless undertone of his writing. He is frequently conscious of sound, and the meme carries well. When, for instance, he discusses racquetball in one of the two essays that focus on the sport, he writes, “I could feel the noise, feel the transcendence, and keep it contained in the court. Pow, pow, pow. I got high with only minimal hearing damage, potential euphoria, and possible confusion.” We feel the explosions in our chest as Church batters a ball to the court wall; meanwhile, his unborn baby’s health fails and troubles careen around him.
Church proceeds associatively, whether about Spam, his torn rotator cuff, or the ironic quirkiness of his wife craving profane hip-hop while pregnant. We hear his mind in midcurrent and swimming on the sentence level, a kind of sensual Annie Dillard–Montaigne pairing with William Gass as interlocutor. Church is a writer on the lookout for meaning through a rivulet of sound.
Some sensations have a smashing impact. The first three essays, for example, are charged with the giddy celebration of discovery and the unnerving exhibition of vulnerability. The tension of the baby girl’s survival seems to get resolved about midbook and so the writing must sustain the narrative power. The voice must keep us charged and following the narrator through his ocean of music. [End Page 204]
For the most part, I found myself completely lured into this dark, penetrating work. I responded to Church’s call and listened for his unseen soundings. His vibrant, poetic prose is connected largely by his notion of essay structure and the generous, strategic use of white space. He reveals a narrator in calculated brush strokes, and he seems to be willing to be exposed, to be known...