- The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting. A Memoir by Kyle Boelte
When Kyle Boelte was thirteen, his older brother, Kris, hanged himself in the basement of the family home in Denver. At age thirty Boelte, having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, perceives parallels between the coastal fog and his obscured memories of Kris. Fog makes it difficult to see clearly; it can be beautiful, softening hard edges; it can be dangerous, causing falls and shipwrecks. Memory, too, plays ambiguous roles, especially for one who has experienced tragedy. Worried about forgetting the past, Boelte is also troubled by it, wondering, “What did I know? What could I have done?” (33). An experienced researcher—with publications on environmental issues in Orion, Sierra, Earth Island Journal, and High Country News—he decides to find out more about fog, memory, and his brother. “I’ve been living with the fog for some time now, surrounded, without knowing much about it,” he says. “It’s time I took a look around” (9). The result is a haunting memoir that collects, and attempts to connect, knowledge about the “unseen.” [End Page 271]
As its subtitle suggests, The Beautiful Unseen is a series of “variations” on a theme; these are fairly brief chapters that can be read as fragments, puzzle pieces, of research and remembering. Taken together, though, they recreate a process of learning, and Boelte, using the present tense, takes his reader along on his journey. The first half of the book portrays Boelte walking, running, and cycling through the coastal fog, narrating the tragedy of the past, and observing his inner and outer environment. In the second half, although the tone of his reflections remains consistent, the narrative’s pacing and method change. On a visit to his mother and father in Colorado, Boelte collects family anecdotes and videos and asks for the box of “Kris’s things” that his parents keep in their garage. Several documents from the box are included in the book: the police and newspaper reports of his brother’s death, Kris’s adoption papers and his death certificate, song lyrics, a speech, a girl’s letters to Kris, a disciplinary form from Kris’s high school, the eulogy read at Kris’s funeral. Intensifying his search “for a story, a way to connect the disparate images” (78), Boelte researches and writes chapters on lsd, asphyxia, coastal redwoods, the Atacama Desert, San Francisco history, and the Golden Gate Bridge as a suicide site. A six-page “Field Guide to San Francisco’s Fog” is written in a different voice and a different font from the rest of the book. Eventually, although he understands more about perception and accepts that “living requires some forgetting” (48), Boelte cannot fully answer his earlier questions. “What else did I know?” he now asks. “What else have I forgotten?” (154).
It’s common for memoirists to reflect on the nature of memory and on their experience of its quirks and limitations. After a few pages of these reflections, most go on with their stories, bridging memory’s gaps as best they can. In contrast, Boelte returns repeatedly to the problem of memory, not content to fill gaps in his narrative with guesses. Despite his many walks around San Francisco’s foggy Eureka Peak, he generates no spurious “aha” moments when sadness dissipates and memory transfigures. Near the end of his exploration, when “so much still remains out of sight” (104), he admits that “there is no field guide to these matters” (143). Five blank pages near the end of the book show that “the unseen” can be appalling as well as beautiful. [End Page 272]
Boelte quotes from Douwe Draaisma’s Metaphors of Memory: “With each new metaphor we place a different filter in front of our perception of memory” (63). Fog is Boelte’s metaphor, and as a metaphor it finally does offer some perspective, self-knowledge, and relief—although uncovering scientific facts about weather patterns, the jet stream, and geography cannot alleviate sadness or...