I am starting to believe that the greatest terror life has in store for us is not death, but grief. Death has an ending, after all; it is the ending. Grief, on the other hand, may subside, but will never truly end. And one of its most awful aspects (it’s a complicated, writhing thing) is helplessness. This is the condition of both the survivor, and—if she is aware of her circumstances—the dying. The loved one pulls away, like the tide withdrawing from the shore, and all anyone can really do is watch. Though sometimes, later, the survivor can also tell the story.
In 2007, Aura Estrada, a young writer and scholar, broke her neck while bodysurfing in Oaxaca and died the next day. Her husband, novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman, wrote Say Her Name in the aftermath of that personal disaster, which was also a loss for the world of letters. The book includes excerpts from Aura’s stories and diaries, which are funny, brightly inventive, and increasingly experimental in their language. In fact, Aura’s promise as a fiction writer is one reason Goldman wrote Say Her Name as a novel: to honor her imagination.
At first, I didn’t realize it was a novel. I found out only after finishing the book and skimming the dust jacket for a hint of how to start talking about it. This was the most brutal portrait of grief I had ever read, and to “review” it—as if there were anything more to say on the subject, especially in the form of critical judgment—seemed absurd. But instead of giving me the handhold I was looking for, the synopsis, puzzlingly, called Say Her Name “the novel of Aura.” Sure enough, the bookstore sticker on the back said it belonged in the fiction section, and so did the Grove/Atlantic Web site. The question should probably not have mattered to me, but it did. What was this terrifying, exhilarating place I’d just emerged from, shaking and desperate to call my husband?
I turned to the New Yorker’s interview with Goldman, in which he discusses the genre issue in some detail. Of course, he says, the extended sections describing Aura’s childhood are fictionalized; since he wasn’t there, how could they not be? More intriguingly, he says the account of his actions as the grieving widower are not (or not all) true. The “narrator” of Say Her Name does things in his anguish that the real Goldman did not. I was relieved to hear that, since much of the narrator’s behavior is reckless and at times cruel. And yet those sections, for me, raised the story far above the finely crafted, moderately touching expression of loss that I might have expected from a grief memoir.
In the novel the bereaved Goldman gets drunk night after night and frequents strip clubs. He hallucinates. He torments himself with accusations that he caused or even desired his wife’s death. He has affairs with Aura’s friends, including a young woman named Ana Eva, at whom he unleashes this twisted, blackly funny tirade:
So take that you fucking Sméagol, you and your Latino straw man marvelous quirkiness of love, go sodomize yourself with your fucking sock puppet, you idiot pendejo!
Ana Eva gaped at me. What had set this off? [….]
She was frightened. She’d drawn back into a corner of the bed. What’s the matter? Was it her? Why was I screaming at her about some Sméagol?
Oh Ana Eva, no, no, it has nothing to do with you. I’m sorry. Something Sméagol, a book critic wrote. He gave us the evil eye on the subway. He fucking killed Aura, not me.
Grief undoes the narrator from inside out, and watching this happen made me fully trust the experience as portrayed. Goldman rejects any redemptive, golden-light-infused “process” to lay bare the reality of his emotion: It’s monstrous. Now he tells me a good portion of the story isn’t true?
Then again, how does the griever himself know what is real? “No happy memory,” Goldman jarringly writes, having already recounted many of them, “that isn’t infected. A virus strain that has jumped from death to life, moving voraciously backward through all memories, obligating me to wish none of it, my own past, had ever happened.” Aura’s death has rewritten his life, making him wish his past—all that has made him who he is—were fiction. What can happiness mean now? What even happened? What’s one more revision of his life story, if grief is the ultimate fabulist?
In the New Yorker interview, Goldman explains how the fictionalized self-portrait reveals a different kind of truth. The man most people saw, in the months and years after Aura’s death, seemed to be doing pretty well. As he mourned he wrote; he taught; he established the Aura Estrada Prize. But all that felt like a lie, he says. In the book, the narrator’s actions reveal the raw, hidden, even shameful experience of grief. He gives it a face. Maybe Goldman also wanted, by writing the fiction, to separate the griever from the person walking the earth under the name “Francisco Goldman.” But it’s equally likely that others, and even he himself, will conflate them. The point is, it really doesn’t matter. The book is very much about Goldman, but also not.
When you get down to it, Say Her Name is about everything, where everything takes the form of Aura. We come to observe life through the lenses of her talent, ambition, astute critiques of academia, humor, Hello Kitty toaster, dresses, travels and culture shocks, and her deep and bracing loves: literature, her troubled mother, her husband. Lost in thought, she misses her subway stops. She loudly recites George Herbert, of all possible poets, when drunk. She wants to have children. She worries that her much older husband will leave her a widow too soon. She adores the beaches of Oaxaca. She wants to learn to bodysurf, but is afraid, so Goldman, who’s been doing it since childhood, shows her how.
Like everyone, and not like anyone, she’s ordinary and extraordinary. She changes Goldman, as he does her, both during her life and after; in the end, her power to transform is just as strong as grief’s. Say Her Name proves how wonderful it is to love someone so much that losing her is so completely devastating. As Goldman puts it:
One of the most common tropes and complaints in the grief books I’ve read is about the loneliness of the deep griever, because people and society seem unable, for the various reasons always listed in those books, to accommodate such pain. But what could anybody possibly do or say to help? Inconsolable does not mean that you are sometimes consolable. The way things are has seemed right to me; it’s all been as it should be, or as if it could not be any other way.
So the helplessness of grief cannot be helped. That makes sense, even if Aura’s strange and awful death does not. The rightness is a kind of consolation.
Still, we wouldn’t want to trade places with Goldman (or Aura) for even one second. Or would we?
Shop Indie Bookstores