Reviewed by Ruth Bonapace
My clutter is simply a pile of stuff: keys, unopened mail, an unpaired earring, notebooks, loose change. Abigail Thomas’s clutter is a woodland path, dotted with the familiar and the unexpected or, as she puts it, “the next interesting thing.”
In her new book, Still Life at Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing (Golden Notebook Press; February 2023), Thomas takes us on a walk around her Woodstock home, pointing out the wisteria, the dog napping under it; the spatchcocked chicken in her kitchen, a housefly on the sill that she’s killed with Windex.
It’s this “next interesting thing” that she clings to when regret, dread, or boredom sneak in and overstay.
She pauses, floats to her twenties, dances through Washington Square Park to days of casual sex with strangers, when the future seemed eternal. Her glance lands on her coffee table, to “the urn my old pal Chuck gave me. It is the color of candied apple.” Could it hold her ashes, she wonders?
This is memoir in bursts, careening through time and imagining what lies ahead. In chapters that range from a single paragraph to four pages, moments circle back or tiptoe ahead. Trepidation mixes with astonishment. She writes:
I am living in the ever-shifting constancy of now. Sometimes the present is interrupted by a memory so vivid that I am in two places at once, an inexpensive, unpatented, readily available form of time travel. These are the moments in which past and present are fused. I like to imagine them as little paperweights, holding my life together before it all blows away.
I met Abigail Thomas in the early 1990s at a writer’s group led by Rick Moody, who was on the cusp of success with The Ice Storm. She’d host us in her pre-war apartment off Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Fond of flowing skirts and cardigans, with wavy blonde hair and a vivacious laugh, Thomas had the air of a debutante. Her writing told a different story: how she’d been kicked out of Bryn Mawr University in her freshman year for getting pregnant and published her first book after turning 50. A former literary agent and editor, her rough drafts seemed effortless. I remember my awe at a short story she’d woven from the contents of her kitchen cupboard. A newcomer to fiction writing in my late 30s, I wanted to be Thomas.
A master of lists, in Still Life at Eighty Thomas again seizes the ordinary to reveal searing loss, love, doubt, and renewal, including her husband’s catastrophic brain injury in an accident, and her move to the small Catskills town near the special care facility where he spent his final years. A city girl whose father, Lewis Thomas, was a renowned physician and writer (The Lives of the Cell) she became a keen observer of the trees, insects, and critters in her overgrown backyard.
Her language is straightforward, but never simplistic. She keeps diaries, not journals. “I don’t like the word journal,” she writes. “It sounds too formal, almost highfalutin.” Yet, she turns again and again to her dictionary, specifically The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, to mine deeper meaning in common words.
“The word ‘miracle’ comes from a root that originally meant ‘to laugh, to smile,’ and I’ve always loved that.” But what about death? A trip through the dictionary concludes that “dead is dead.” It is, she says, “an ugly word” but death “rhymes with breath, even if it’s the last.”
She is startled at the rapid passage of time:
At first the word ‘elderly’ conjures up someone thin, frail, someone I might help across a busy street. Someone else. A moment passes before I realize, with a jolt, that I’m elderly. I don’t feel elderly. I feel like myself, only more so.
As a 60th birthday gift, she gave herself a salamander tattoo on her right arm. To mark her 80th, she did it again on her left, this time choosing the letters FTS. Fuck This Shit.
“It applies to something new every day” she explains, adding that she’d hoped to get inked in The New York Times font, but it was too complex for the neighborhood tattoo parlor.
Thomas summons this wit and optimism to make peace with creeping infirmity – she walks with a cane – and vexations of memory: what you remember vividly, what you remember differently and what you cannot remember at all.
Is it because life is now a speeding train, and everything is a blur? Or is it because life is passing so slowly that I’m mired in the sludge?
Seven years ago, in her book What Comes Next and How to Like It, she wrote: “The stuff that doesn’t work has to be written to make way for the stuff that might.”
In Still Life at Eighty, the first book published by Woodstock’s new Golden Notebook Press, an offshoot of the town’s beloved 45-year-old independent bookstore, Thomas continues to sift through her mountain of “stuff.” And she does so with gusto.
“Does losing memories presage losing my mind?” she asks. It’s odd that I’m not afraid. I’m curious, but not afraid. … I am finally living in the moment.”