Robert Kostuck reviews A Map of Everything by Elizabeth Earley.
Author: Elizabeth Earley
Release date: March 2, 2014
Jaded Ibis Press, 2014, 288 pp., ISBN 978-1-937543-48-8
Black-on-cream edition: $16.99; Full-color edition: $49.00; Illustrated ebook edition: $7.99; CD
Soundtrack: $9.99; Signed, limited edition art by Christa Donner: $TBD
In the closing chapter of Elizabeth Earley’s memoir A Map of Everything, a three-year-old child asks about an image of the periodic table of elements on an adult’s t-shirt. The child seems awed when told that it represents, in effect, “. . . a map of everything.”
“. . . I lingered there on his answer to Li, feeling almost offended at the idea that the periodic table of elements represents everything that exists. Everything emerges from infinite chemical reactions and evolves with constant change. But surely it doesn’t account for everything. It doesn’t account for seemingly random, sometimes tragic events that intervene in a life lived in linear time. It doesn’t account for the invisible helpers of young sisters. It doesn’t account for metal screws twisted into the skulls of sixteen-year-old girls. The periodic table says that we humans are soulless–we are chemical reactions. But reverence is not a chemical reaction, nor is hope which, unfettered by gravity, extends itself over the valleys of our lives.”
Hope is the common thread running through and connecting these one hundred and eighteen chapters, chapters which combine in unexpected ways and often jump out from the narrative, displaying the techniques of the short story. Hope is the thing that holds the narrator fixed to the earth, even as she faces her own personal and private demons.
The narrative opens with the car accident which leaves Anne’s (Elizabeth’s) older sister June with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the immediate reactions from her family: twin brother Jonas, older sister Lee, younger brother Mark, younger sister Anne, and Mother. Father makes rare and unremarkable appearances.
Lee is clinging to Craig, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well; eventually they marry and produce Sophie whose innocence captivates Anne. Jonas enrolls in medical school, only to become a dropout. Mark joins the Air Force.
As a young girl, Anne’s friendship with her peer Andy wavers between reality and dream: at times he is translucent, a foil or mirror for her to gaze into. She undergoes the rituals of adolescence: alcohol, drugs, sex, boys . . . and girls. Her awakening sexuality and her relationships with other women contrast and compliment her affection for her family. It is through the human struggle of personal growth which she experiences in these relationships that allows Anne comes to terms with June’s debilitating injury. By the time Sophie is in high school, Anne has reached a point where she is able to view the disintegration of her family with equanimity and objectivity, without sacrificing the memories of her affections.
Five of the chapters—and a trenchant prologue delineating the result of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of the city of Pompeii: figures frozen, lives changed, X-ed out and erased in a moment—outline the effects of the natural phenomenon of volcanoes—and this is also a metaphor for the horrible disruption that June’s TBI brings to the family.
Interspersed through the narrative are thirteen chapters describing five days spent in Paris. June, fluent in French acts as a sort of interpreter and guide, and the trip allows the family to step out of their day-to-day routines and look at the world—and each other—anew. This family holiday reflects Anne’s eventually wanderlust: Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities figure in her travels and new, adult home life/lives. Mirroring June’s medical disabilities, Anne has a (non-life threatening) accident of her own; drinks to excess, enters rehabilitation, survives.
The chapter headings (Hydrogen, Argon, Technetium, Ununquadium) illuminate the fact that the elements are, indeed, a map of everything; everything in the give and take of family relationships distilled to the essentials and then recombined to form startling and sometimes dangerous compounds: surreal dreams where she becomes another living object (whale, bird, tree); letters addressed directly to June or Sophie; imagined conversations between June and the ghost-like Zeek.
One might call the writer of a memoir merely a narrator; here, though, we have a self-aware witness. Her summation is simple and succinct:
“Witnessing her is like witnessing a crime. Only the latter would be easier because some justice might be had. Yet, the element of crime is unmistakable. It was there when the event occurred. (Calling it an accident seems wrong, so, event.) It was evident in her hospital rooms, the comatose months, her pallid face, the crust around her eyes, the milky muck collected in the corners of her mouth. It was evident in her slow emergence from coma, like the real life depiction of the evolution of man image, only to be arrested, Finally, at this primitive, unbalanced stage.”
Ms. Earley’s vocabulary and stylistic flourishes are restrained and concise; the power of her tale lies in her fluid motions between family and self, innocence and awareness, sacrifice and self-preservation. A Map of Everything allows the reader to partake in the process of grief and the eventual, and sometimes long-delayed, reward of resolution.