Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity — from survivor’s guilt to survivor’s elation, to the awe and disbelief evoked by spectacles of destruction, to the way we manage anxiety over impending dangers. Even more impressive is her skill at bending crisp, clear language into shapes that illustrate the shifting logic of the disastrous, keeping the reader oriented amid continual upheaval ... Gabbert turns her attention to the blind spots and mistaken impressions that constitute our subjective experience of self and world, from false memories and phantom limbs to witch trials and compassion fatigue ... With its expansive curiosity and encyclopedic style, Gabbert’s book can make for unsettling reading, especially in a time of actual crisis ... The essays often seem uncannily to anticipate circumstances that the author simply couldn’t have known about: They have a clarity and prescience that imply a sort of distant, retrospective view, like postcards sent from the near future ... But I imagine Gabbert would offer an alternate explanation for this oracular effect. Increasingly, the threats and fissures that mark our reality are known, but this doesn’t make them any easier to comprehend. It’s only when a potential disaster turns actual that it becomes real to us — and in that moment it will still feel incomprehensible, impossible, unforeseen.
The novelist Walker Percy once asked, 'Why do people driving around on beautiful Sunday afternoons like to see bloody automobile wrecks?' With this simple question, Percy reveals the depth of human malaise. We seek the bloody in the beautiful and savor the gratifying and self-satisfied thrill of knowing we ourselves have momentarily escaped the suffering of the accident. In her absolutely stunning collection of essays, The Unreality of Memory, which is part medical and psychological sleuthing and part memoir, Elisa Gabbert takes up Percy’s question and places it in our current cultural context ... Gabbert doesn’t only probe into our fascination with the pull of death and disaster. She also peers behind the curtains of mortality and time to explore the ways that memory and story either lull us into complacency about moral evil or allow us to embrace impending death ... Gabbert candidly asks startling and unsettling questions about our view of human nature and the ways we are often complicit in the suffering of others. With the world teetering on the brink of the political, social, environmental and medical abyss, The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times.
Gabbert’s descriptions of the human failure to grasp climate change in all its dimensions end up being a far better aid to apprehending it. They are not, however, likely to rouse anyone to action. 'Big and Slow' is typical of Gabbert’s disaster essays in that its bent is deterministic ... Despite her drone’s-eye perspective, Gabbert remains a human being concerned with human suffering. She often describes her horror at death and destruction, and her rage against what she sees as evil. But these moral instincts do not usually translate into well-defined moral positions. (After quoting her, I keep finding upon reflection that I need to delete 'she argues' and replace it with something else.) Her essays are not argumentative or even narrative as much as they are accretive, example after example building on a given theme: nuclear disaster, the threat of tsunamis and earthquakes, the nature of pain, the difficulty of seeing oneself as one is. The technique effectively conveys each topic’s 'sheer sheerness,' to borrow Gabbert’s gloss on skyscrapers’ sublimity. Like massive buildings, her subjects are hard to fit in a single frame; she circles them, finding all the vantages she can ... In the end, the aesthetic tools she otherwise wields so brilliantly — that sky-high view, that inward-looking zoom — are not well-suited for showing us how we should live with one another. But then, literature is often better at showing us how we actually do.