The Loss of All Lost Things by Amina Gautier
The reclining grey figure on the cover of Amina Gautier’s award-winning collection of short stories The Loss of All Lost Things is immediately recognizable. I have met him before, in a dimly lit rectangular room in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. He belongs to a buried city, to a city that lost everything. One of Mount Vesuvius’s victims, his form was preserved in ash for 2000 years. He lies peacefully on his side as if asleep, as if the falling ash and pumice, the toxic fumes, and the mountain spilling fire are all a dream from which he will awaken. In fact, this man is familiar to all of us who are fascinated by disaster, who look up pictures of flooded city squares, earthquake-ravaged towns, or hurricanes at sea, who sieve through images of droughts and plane wrecks, who gaze at the dull exterior of the duplex wherein a murder has taken place, where a child was last seen alive, or where a woman has been confined for half her life. What is it that these images promise to unlock for us? How do we understand their metonymic relationship to loss? How do we imagine the ash cloud overhead? This is perhaps what powers Gautier’s collection: imagining loss and imagining a world, our world, built expressly out of all things lost.
Dr. Amina Gautier is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout her literary career, she has shown a deep dedication to the short story form. Gautier’s work has appeared in over 85 literary magazines, including Glimmer Train, Iconoclast, Iowa Review, and Kenyon Review. Her first collection of stories about troubled teens, entitled At-Risk, won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Now We Will Be Happy, a collection about the lives of Afro-Puerto Ricans, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the USA Best Book Award in African American Fiction. Gautier’s most recent collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, was awarded the Elixir Press Fiction Award and was published by Elixir Press in 2016.
Reading The Loss of All Lost Things, I had the impression I was wandering through a house of many rooms, each unit containing its own particular tableau of loss.
In fact, this man is familiar to all of us who are fascinated by disaster, who look up pictures of flooded city squares, earthquake-ravaged towns, or hurricanes at sea …
Indeed, Gautier pays specific attention to space and particularly domestic spaces in her stories: subtle tensions between spouses, lovers, mothers, and daughters, strained conversations over kitchen countertops, rooms at twilight, stacks of paperwork yet to be completed, and a deep habitual despair palpable in every gesture.
The opening story in the collection, entitled “Lost and Found,” offers readers a fleeting glimpse into the world of an abducted child. The story is chilling; its brevity, the breathless use of present tense, and lack of resolution only make it more unnerving. Confined in a motel room, the young boy reflects on his kidnapping:
He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found.
In the title story of the collection, we see another refraction of the story—the child’s parents struggling to continue with their lives after the shattering disappearance of their son:
They search in all weather; they harass the media for coverage. They leave the light on outside. They do not touch their answering machine: they keep the message exactly the same. They supply the authorities with recent photos, with medical and dental records, with everything they ask. They do all they can think of. They never rest. They never tire. They never lose hope.
In fact, they keep their son’s playroom exactly the same, his toys untouched, as if time has stopped, hoping that he will return to them, and that they will be able to pick up the fragments of their lives and continue from where they left off. We are told that “they are stuck. Stuck here. Stuck in this time. Stuck together … Worse than mourning is this waiting that never ends.”
… who sieve through images of droughts and plane wrecks, who gaze at the dull exterior of the duplex wherein a murder has taken place, where a child was last seen alive, or where a woman has been confined for half her life.
The image of the grieving family’s attempt to freeze time bares a similarity to the arrested world of Pompeii, a life stopped in motion. Indeed, these two stories, “Lost and Found” and “The Loss of All Lost Things,” work as a diptych, portraying two fragments of a life that will never be whole again, a life in shards, a life frozen in time.
In a recent interview in Storyville, Gautier explains that the story “Lost and Found” was inspired by multiple factors, but the main inspirations she cites are the Shawn Hornbeck case and the faces of missing children on milk cartons:
I grew up eating my cereal to the face of lost kids. Every morning, staring back at me were the faces of kids who’d been snatched and were now lost, while I was safe and sound at my kitchen table preparing for the school day. I wondered who these kids were, what they were doing at the exact moment I was eating, if they knew people were looking for them, if they saw their own faces on the milk, if they would ever be found.
The several stories about missing children outline the contours of an inexplicable grief, yet the subtler losses—such as the loss of a relationship, loss of a chance at love, or the reoccurring regrets, biases, and heartaches that we see in the stories such as “What’s Best for You,” “As I Wander,” and “Intersections”—expose an equally powerful portrait of loss. In fact, Gautier’s writing is at its strongest when it describes these particular “small” losses and quiet injuries.
Amina Gautier’s “Disturbance” is like a contemporary version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
The story “Intersections” depicts the fraught junctures in a love triangle between Jack, a white university professor, Jasmine, a brilliant black graduate student, and Jack’s childless wife, Margaret, who longs to adopt an African child. At first the story construction seems overly familiar—an older male professor’s affair with his beautiful young graduate student—but it is the language, particularly the dialogue and unique descriptions, that offers a fresh interpretation of this common theme. At the centre of the story is the image of Jasmine’s intricately braided hair, which acts as a metaphor for the larger intersections within their lives, as well as their beliefs and biases. Gautier writes, “Every time [Jack] drove through an intersection, he’d remember the patterns in her scalp and how they’d been a map, showing him all the possible ways he could go.” This striking image, this scalp of many paths, stays with me even after I have put the collection aside.
There is a profound sense of space in Gautier’s work. The precise prose and the understated tone signals the great expanse of emptiness, loneliness, and regret that makes up Gautier’s characters’ lives. “Disturbance” stands out from the other stories as it invites us into a cult-like community, a parallel dystopia. Like a contemporary version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” it offers a glimpse into two distinct societies, the town of Togetherness and the world “outside.” Although “Togetherness” belies a deeply sinister mob-motivated brutality, the outside world, where boys are killed for wearing hoodies, where a woman is stopped for a traffic violation and ends up dead in a prison cell, does not offer much conciliation. This story holds up a mirror to the other stories in the collection, which all depict the “outside world,” indeed our world, with its cumulative injustices and tragedies—the failed relationships, broken families, missing children—as a storehouse of grief.
What is it that these images promise to unlock for us? How do we understand their metonymic relationship to loss?
Is it better then to embrace these failings and disturbances, or try to escape them? “Disturbance” seems to suggest that it is better to try to make a difference in the world than to go into exile. Yet this response seems only to be one of many possibilities in the collection. Forced “togetherness” is not the antidote to loneliness. However, there is no assurance that engaging in the “outside world” will bring any form of reprieve, fulfillment, or hope either.
Gautier’s collection relays a hushed sense of disaster, a distinct, smooth-faced melancholy. It is this dull throb, the pervading sense of disappointment, consistent throughout, which connects the communities in these stories. There are no “happy endings” in this collection. Rather The Loss of All Lost Things works to build a geography of loss; it invites us to trace the contours of this muted landscape, to imagine the varieties of absence, heartbreak, and despair. As writer Robert Boswell said of the collection, “The Loss of All Lost Things is a powerful, bold collection that examines the dark corners of the culture—those poorly concealed places that we prefer to forget. Gautier forgets nothing and no one.” This is true: in this particular storehouse of loss, nothing is forgotten.
Throughout the book, I kept returning to the man sleeping below the volcano, head resting on his arms. This image questions the ways in which we face or face up to disaster. It suggests that to confront disaster sometimes means to face away, like this 2000-year-old body found in the ruins of Pompeii. He lies facing the earth. Is it a position of mourning or a position of acceptance? Perhaps to face disaster means to approach it sidelong, as we see in Gautier’s work, to return to it from different angles, to encounter it in corridors, in dimly lit rooms, to let it float over us, to cover us—exquisitely, ruthlessly—in a pale frost.
Kasia Juno grew up in South Africa and Canada. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in The Rumpus, Maisonneuve Magazine, The Puritan, and in the anthology of Best Canadian Poetry 2015, among others. She is a PhD student at McGill University and lives in Montreal.