There is always a coming storm: Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri

(W)ere it not for the troubling discoloration of my skin, one could even think that I am merely sleeping out in the open; it is only September after all, and is not September the perfect month for resting under the bruised sky?

Novels narrated by the dead are not an entirely unique literary phenomenon, but typically the deceased speaker takes the reigns to unravel a mystery, look back on a life, or observe future happenings from beyond the grave. Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri opens with the statement, “I died on the twelfth of September, at the height of happiness,” but proceeds as uncertain meditation on this strange state of being no more, yet continuing to be. It could be described as an exercise in imagining experience unguided by expectation that begins when a woman slips out of life while sitting in the garden beneath a chestnut tree and becomes, ultimately, a kind of existential post-mortem of the self.

Disembodied is a novel with only an intimation of plot. It is a speculative journey, reader with writer—one in which the destination is no more evident to the former than the latter. But that is not to imply that this is a ghostly narrative that wanders widely and recklessly, rather it is one in which that narrator is still bound somehow to her own corpse, neither really inside nor outside. It is not what she might have anticipated, to be consciousness still tethered to a body, immobile yet somehow sensible, slowly embarking on a new relationship with reality, tangible and intangible.

She is a woman becoming a memory. An unstable and fragmented one.

Memories visit, moments from childhood and from the most recent tasks left unfinished in her nearby house. But critical biographical details escape her—she can’t remember what she might have once done for a living and, although she can recall people from her past, she can bring no faces to mind. She can sketch out a pattern of decisions that led her to move to an isolated location, she can talk of illness and pain, but death has disconnected her from the compass of time:

There are moments in which it feels as if months have gone by, that it has been months, even years since I fell here, and there are others when I am certain that it happened mere seconds ago, moments when I think I will get back up and return to my day as if nothing had happened, and I wish I knew now a little something about brain activity after death, about how consciousness is connected to the physiological functioning of the brain and how death severs that connection—about the very process of death, if not something, then everything, in great detail.

Being dead is not, in itself, a problem for our narrator. It is as if its early arrival—she figures she is probably in her mid-thirties—is something she anticipated, a probable outcome of an illness she had accepted, even sought to meet in solitude. And yet to be incompletely disembodied was unforeseen. She feels, or imagines she feels rain and falling leaves touch her skin. At times her body seems to be preparing to return to nature, while at other times she longs to move, weighed down by the burden of the illusion of breathing, an embodied remembrance that feeds the sensation that she could simply arise and return to her day. It remains, then, for her to reflect on life and death, the abstracted joys and sorrows that don’t quite fit into a complete picture, unable to shut out a parade of fragmented memories—experienced or read in a book or caught in a dream. “At rest” there is no rest.

Here in the presence of no other human being, with eyes that burn like embers in my skull, eyes that I don’t even know whether they belong to me or how I would recognize them if someone were to hold a mirror above, under this chestnut tree that looks nothing like the one I once knew, in this garden that I have seen in my dreams over and over again, long before ever actually finding the house, I let words crawl out of my mind and out of my mouth, only to waste them on speaking of something I have not thought of in years, to waste words and to waste myself on suffocation one final time.

Her questions become increasingly existential, focused on the matter of what kind of matter might account for this continued consciousness. A soul? An awareness that does not depend on functioning senses? The philosophical expansiveness becomes a kind of freedom, a freedom without answers, only more questions, but even as she drifts she cannot escape the pull of the longing to be. Again and again she returns to anchor herself, under a tree, in the garden. The tangible remnants of recent life, her nearby house, her library, a cup of coffee, an unfinished letter call to her.

There are echoes here of Tudor-Sideri’s first book, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, a memoir/meditation on embodied experience that draws on myths and traditions of the Romania of her childhood to explore what it means to exist in corporeal form, wounded, mortal. But this is a philosophical/fictional exercise that extends beyond what we can know, open-ended and unrestrained. As she explains in a collection of interview fragments gathered in Minor Literature[s]:

I felt an urge to allow myself more: to play with something different, more permissive, although permissive is not necessarily what I mean – I needed a larger playground, as simple as that. And the novel, a dash of fiction, allowed me to do so. I did not plan anything, I did not know where I would arrive, I had nothing in mind aside from the beginning, which I pulled from a dream, same as a few other scenes […]

This openness and resistance to any specific genre, allows her to entertain the kind of problems that rarely trouble the typical post-death narrator and present a most intriguing possibility—that dying might not be exactly the release we imagine. The narrative style—a single, unbroken paragraph—enhances the claustrophobia of the speaker, often troubled that her thoughts and memories won’t release her. I might have preferred an occasional line break here and there, but when I think about it that’s a question of my comfort. A dead narrator doesn’t need to stop to catch her breath.

Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri is published by Sublunary Editions.