If a ‘good book’ sometimes manifests as something difficult to put down, there is another kind of good book that one is forced to put down. Words and images ignite in a way that seems too beautiful, too true, their potency eliciting an internal scream of recognition that one must stop and feel and process. There is an existential loneliness to this internal scream—a longing, perhaps, to share it with the world in a way that might just be impossible. It is the kind of feeling that would best be described by Durga Chew-Bose herself, who crafts a revelatory style of observational prose in this debut essay collection.
Chew-Bose’s writing first came to my attention via a friend, seven years my junior, whose company and cultural wisdom—the kind possessed exclusively by those younger and brighter than you—were a blessing during my first few months in New York. This friend invited me to a talk with Chew-Bose, linking me to her piece ‘Since Living Alone’. The piece begins:
I learned last summer that if you place a banana and an unripe avocado inside a paper bag, the avocado would — as if spooned to sleep by the crescent-laid banana — ripen overnight. By morning, that pallid shade of green would turn near-neon and velvety, and I, having done nothing but pair the two fruits, would experience a false sense of accomplishment similar to returning a library book or listening to a voicemail.
That I, too, feel accomplished after listening to a voicemail does not make me adorably quirky. There is no shortage of content, greatly varied in artfulness and originality, that draws attention to such human foibles, and resonates (“Today I responded to an email that I’d read and marked ‘unread’ five times last week - #adulting”). But Chew-Bose’s alertness to the intricate systems of thought, action and feeling that comprise everyday consciousness transforms these commonplaces into something visceral and deeply arresting.
Describing Too Much and Not the Mood as an essay collection feels unjust. Chew-Bose blends memoir and criticism into what often feels like prose poetry, in a fashion that has prompted comparisons to Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus. She probes and ponders friendship, writing, parental love, romantic love, youth, age, cinema, racial identity, her Bengali heritage, weather, New York, femininity, solitude and many other subjects.
Her treatment of these topics is both meandering and acute. The pieces are distinctly formless, as though she has consciously, after struggling to adhere to structure in her broader writing practice, abandoned herself to a stream-of-consciousness style that gives her inquisitive mind the license and the space to wander. Her observations—of emojis, bedside tables, “Bill Cunningham blue”, the casual racism with which people mispronounce her name, ‘compliments’ on her skin tone, her mother’s habit of taking lunches to work in recycled yoghurt containers (my mother does this too), the distress sparked in a child by a malfunctioning slinky—form a profound meditation on her life and memory that, rather than feeling solipsistic, feels urgent and universal.
The first and longest piece, ‘Heart Museum’, showcases her prose in its most nebulous beauty. It reads like a tour, though disorienting and fragmented, of all that has awed her in the first three decades of her life. The feeling of listening to a new album that is “perhaps not great, but good.” Her surprise, upon first watching Basic Instinct, that it was Sharon Stone’s shoulders that most captivated her in the scandalous interrogation scene. The ease with which conversation flows on a porch, thanks to gentle interjections from the outside world that “kink the air pressure that might exist between two people.” These observations spring off of each other and cocoon each other, without conclusion or clear continuity.
Discussing her writing practice in interviews, Chew-Bose has emphasised the value of digression. As a creative writing teacher she is well attuned to the pressure for writers to pander to a form or conclusion that is elusive, and encourages her students to veer off track because it is in these off-track spaces, she believes, that the best ideas can percolate and the best writing can flourish. Tangential meandering is an art in itself in this book. She imbues minutiae with beauty and significance in a way that feels truly fresh—her mode of inquisition is the whole point, and the reader is invited to train her observational acuity on their own experiences.
In one of the many digressions in ‘Heart Museum’, several pages form a love letter to what Chew-Bose describes as “Nook People”. These are thoughtful, reserved, solitary types who take pleasure in their own company. Women “who needn’t say much for all to know, tonight, they won’t be staying out long.” My biggest internal scream came with this:
Nook people express appreciation in the moment by maintaining how much we will miss what is presently happening. Our priorities are spectacularly disordered. A nook person might spend the last few years of her twenties thinking she is dying. Convinced of it.
The giddy debriefing between my young friend and I after we’d both finished the book could be summarised as “Nook People! You! Me! Us!” Perhaps Chew-Bose is the only Nook Person capable of describing her temperaments without entering this territory. Nook People are often self-absorbed— how else would we enjoy spending so much time alone? By the same token, hypochondriacs are by definition self-obsessed—concerned, to breaking point, with our own longevity and wellbeing. I’ve joked at times that my chronic anxiety is symptomatic of a deep happiness and contentment with my life. But Chew-Bose manages to lasso these follies and irrationalities with an optimistic kind of detachment that repels cliché.
The Nook Person passage echoes through ‘Since Living Alone’, a particularly introspective piece in the collection. Living alone, she writes, “is a form of self-portraiture, of retracing the same lines over and over.” One becomes a spectator to one’s own habits with newfound clarity, a narrator of one’s own movements with a new type of self-consciousness. She articulates an inconsistent but profound harmony in this arrangement.
I have never lived alone—the idea is both scary and financially unattainable—but I seek out solitude compulsively and would add ‘Personal Space’ to the base rung in a bespoke Maslow’s Pyramid. My Nook Personhood has only been exacerbated since moving to a big new city, one that so stimulates, manipulates and jams up my mind each time I leave the house that it seems almost medically expedient to be alone in my spare time, just to process a day, clear my head, decide with good judgment what to think and feel and do next.
When my mental health is strong I take intense joy in curating my daily existence. I meticulously plan each minute of solitary leisure: deciding on the train, before I open my book, which podcast to play when I arrive home and make dinner; tidying my room with a jubilant sense of purpose, ordering my wardrobe into a rainbow of dull greens and greys and finding gratification in this marker of myself; texting loved ones at strategic times in order to make sure I have new messages on my lunch break; systematically stocktaking my open tabs, culling and reordering them in categorised windows designed to nudge my attention towards that important-looking article my dad sent me three weeks ago. I suppose everybody has Nook habits, but there is a prioritisation of such activities, a sacredness ascribed to them, that is exclusive to the Nook People that Chew-Bose describes.
To read Too Much and Not the Mood is to be taken on a tour of one’s own Heart Museum. In a passage in ‘Part of a Greater Pattern’, an essay centred on her parents and her childhood in Montreal, she describes being homesick for “days of the week”: “They carried more significance when I was younger. Nowadays dates are what are significant …I am sick for Tuesday.”
I am not sick for Tuesday, which meant swimming lessons, but I am sick for Thursday, which meant no swimming lessons and, usually, something special for afternoon tea because my sister’s friend, whose mother worked late that day, would come to our house after school. Viewed from adulthood, these routines and the parental love and supervision that sustained them glow with snug simplicity.
Chew-Bose illuminates the inconspicuous places in which happiness lingers and inspires curiosity and gratitude in the everyday. The light through which she contemplates the world will stay with her readers long after they close this book.
Alice Richardson is a Melbourne-born bookseller, editor and copywriter living in Brooklyn.