A walking stick, a club, dirty laundry, boxes, a skillet, a sword, a spoon—can such everyday objects tell us secrets or foretell our future? Can they feel pain or act immorally? How much of us can our things hold, and how much of them can we absorb?
“We are attached to the possession of a thing because we think that if we cease to possess it, it will cease to exist,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil. Robert Long Foreman might very well be making a version of Weil’s argument in his book of essays, Among Other Things, in which we quickly learn that a possessed thing can, in fact, contain life—or frequently death.
But Foreman seems intent on transformation over possession. Subjected to his keen, inquiring gaze, clubs have brothers and cardboard boxes tire each other out, while humans recede into three-dimensional ceramic busts and two-dimensional sketches. The line between the human possessor and the inanimate possessed is blurred and redrawn in a new spot, only to be blurred again and again and again.
While reading, I began to think of things as having both a physical and a spiritual dimension, and I saw these essays as mapping the power dynamics between the living and the lifeless—a two-way relationship, full of countless complicated twists.
At times, Foreman’s things augment their human possessor, increasing his physical and spiritual power: “The stick would complete my walking self when I had not realized that I was a fragment,” Foreman writes in conclusion of the first essay, “Speak, Walking Stick.”
But before we get too comfortable with being buoyed by our objects, Foreman blurs the line. In the book’s second essay, about clubs, he writes, “I bought the club because I thought it seemed interesting. As a happy side effect, I kept it from the hands of someone who might think it seemed useful.” Here, the physical relationship between the living and the lifeless remains one of augmentation, but in this case, it has taken on an explicit darkness as Foreman braids his personal story with records of police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan.
Other times, the line blurs, and an object seems to gain total physical and spiritual independence, operating with its own sinister agenda. After Foreman’s skillet melts and births an unattached metal object, he finds pieces of his thumb flaking off; he had been flicking the shiny metal for weeks without realizing it was inflicting bodily harm. Still other times, the living step toward the lifeless. Of his time working as a figure model, Foreman writes:
The usefulness of drawing a body must have had something to do with this tension between its status as a living thing and its owner’s attempt to pretend otherwise. When I modeled I portrayed myself as lifeless, and it was the performance everyone drew. I acted like something that can’t feel pain or wonder how big the universe is; they rendered that fiction onto paper.
The collection was selected as the winner of Pleiades Press’s Robert C. Jones Short Prose Book Contest by John D’Agata, champion of the essay as a form that makes the mind’s inquiry visible on the page, so it is not surprising that Foreman’s book works in this mode. Each essay reads as an attempt to answer or complicate a central question: how do we relate to our things? Most pieces are short, between two and fourteen printed pages, and almost all are written in traditional prose form, yet they remain individually distinct and surprising, containing the soft, tricky beauty of an opal. Throughout the book, phrases that seemed merely elegant in one essay become deeply meaningful one, two, or three essays later. To return to clubs, for example: one might think these objects are really quite similar to walking sticks. Perhaps one might even begin to wonder, without quite knowing why, whether a club is simply a walking stick repurposed for violence? Upon closer examination, it is clear that this violent turn between the first and second essays is well foreshadowed by Foreman, who describes the walking stick with lines like this: “Its color was a deep brown that verged on black and suggested it was once amber but turned evil.”
Taken as a whole, the essays both stand independently and build together, with Foreman’s language choices subtly preparing us for twists we could never anticipate but which feel perfectly right once they have come. Walking sticks and clubs introduce the author’s relatives, which lead into his family’s insistence on an expensive prep school, which touches on his relationship to food, which segues into ruminations on his vegetarianism, which introduces the author’s romantic relationships, which introduce the theme of dwellings, all of which seem to build to what is by far the longest essay in the book, “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture.”
“We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture” is probably the book’s biggest surprise, coming second to last in the collection and clocking in at eighty-one pages, more than five times as long as any other piece. It is, in many ways, the most memoir-like piece in the book, telling the story of Foreman’s reaction to the death of his Aunt Posey and his inheritance of her things. It is also one of the book’s more difficult pieces, taking long detours and bringing themes in late, including an ominous and strange thread about cicadas. Yet I find it hard to criticize a single meander; the piece works in part because, in reading the collection, I came to have complete confidence in Foreman’s decision-making and to delight in the anticipation of a revelation currently out of reach.
When reading about Posey’s death and Foreman’s difficulty dealing with his inheritance—objects inexorable from Posey’s person that he never asked to own—I remembered a line from his essay on prep school: “I understand that to spend mornings and afternoons in a place for four years entails merging that place with the person you are, or strive to be, whether you like it or not.”
Sometimes, we are our objects. Sometimes, our objects are us. Sometimes, neither. But beneath every object lies the subject that makes it an object to us in the first place, some kind of human desire that manifests in our things, and the line between the two is fluid, transferable, and for the most part, out of our control.
“I wanted to be definite,” Foreman writes, “but the artists showed me that I could be split into two dimensions and parceled out among them ad infinitum.”
Among Other Things
by Robert Long Foreman
Pleiades Press, 2017
$17.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-0-8071-6661-1