University of Chicago Press
408 Pages; Print, $29.00
Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack celebrates the intangible, investigating the place where interiority and exteriority meet, the mental space where the past ebbs into the present, weaving sense memory, cultural history, and personal recollection by connecting private and public moments in the experience of everyday reality. If tone is everything, this ambitious, humorous, yet serious creative-nonfiction study of mood is a necessary book for our time.
Even while daring to ask playful questions, such as, “When was the last time you treated yourself to an excessive tone or an extraordinary one?” Life Breaks In raises startling theories about mood, warning we might be entering a moodless age, much different from a depressing, depressed, or depressive age. In this age when we speak of moods as something pharmaceuticals can treat and must be regulated, iPhones might be replacements for moods as holding environments for images, thoughts, ideas, and memories.
At the same time, the book argues against the constraints of context in our contemporary culture, which traps thought through connotation in an age when a writer writing about mood must labor against the popular assumption that she is writing a book about depression and therefore must be depressed, perhaps because mood spelled backwards is “doom” and depression lowers the lid on the tomb of human consciousness.
Creating an alternative to the impoverished mandate of our daily lives, the aesthetic challenge of Life Breaks In is not to explain or define mood but to notice it without killing it in the process. Confronting the inscrutability of life, Cappello calls what she is doing “cloud writing” but admits it may be a form of essay writing allowing for apposition and assemblage through conundrum and accident, “fostering a taste for discontinuity.” If cloud-writing and essaying meet at points of attention and drift, they invite us to immersive absorptive planes that incite altered states in this “almanac,” a revelatory book of secrets whose only requirement is that we “float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.”
Involving the reader in a creative exploratory process, both associative and self-aware, this genre-defying book interacts with the reader by asking, “If you could see your life as a structure of feeling, as a spectrum of colors or a musical scale, if you could chart your life’s sensations in the way of a farmer’s almanac, what would it look like, and how would it sound?” If every experience in life presupposes a tonal mental background against which it appears, this background, which might be called mood, is a challenge to define because it is abstract, personal, cultural, and timeless although bounded by time. There are moods for every sensory experience, moods for every moment, moods of music, literature, television, film, album covers, kinship, bodies, clouds, words, forms, photographs, memories, voices, and arrangements. Entering the book, the reader becomes immersed in a meditation of shifting climates and varying palettes. Exiting the book, the reader is left with a lingering impression, a yield of new knowledge, and the immanent life of an idea.
Ambitious and generously detailed, drawing from a plethora of notes and sources, well researched and deep in its reach, Life Breaks In delights in challenging the reader. In fact, Cappello is drawn to writing that “resists its reader,” interrupting the day, making the heart skip a beat, and requiring the reader to “listen” with the eyes. Her book-length essay on mood is a collage work that relies on apposition rather than linearity. The book is open, self-seeking, digressive, interrogative rather than declarative, and descriptive rather than explanatory. The early pages oriented by aphoristic mood hints, propositions, queries, and conundra, the rest of the book functions as extended footnotes without being identified as such. Sections morph, overlap, bleed out, contract, and recede like cloud formations.
Due to the demanding nature of her experimental prose, Cappello’s writing makes an...