By Katharine Coldiron
Vanishing Monuments is painstaking, in the literal sense of that compound word: it took enormous pain to make this book. It’s a novel that, for all its organizational strategies, reads with the immediacy of a memoir.
Vanishing Monuments by John Elizabeth Stintzi. Arsenal Pulp Press, 340 pages, $17.95.
Vanishing Monuments is as carefully organized as an architectural blueprint, as meticulously written as a poem, and as achingly accomplished as a violin solo. That does not mean it’s an easy book to read; it took this reviewer weeks to get through, because it’s just so heavy. Every chapter is weighted with guilt, and fear, and uncertainty. The bonds of family and memory drag like chains.
The novel is narrated by Alani, a genderfluid photographer in their mid-40s. They must return from Minneapolis, where they live and work, to Winnipeg, where their childhood home sits collecting dust and dead bugs, to reckon with their mother Hedwig’s declining health. Hedwig, also a photographer, has been living with dementia in a nursing home: the most recent change in her condition is aphasia, the inability to speak. Alani knows it’s time to go home, to settle with their past, and the book is a slow, spiraling exploration of what happens when they do.
Stintzi’s language is thoroughly compelling. As soon as Alani arrives in Winnipeg, they want to go back to Minneapolis: “I’ll just slow down and turn around again, get back here and turn around again, again and again. Slowly making it through the labyrinth of back and forth before my inertia surrenders to here. To her.” Sitting at their mother’s bedside: “I can feel her hand in mine. I can feel her moving. Beneath my skin, another version of myself is on fire. I am not anyone who sees.” Moving through their memories: “Remembering is being dragged through the waist-deep rubble of the whole of your life — what you’ve lived and what you are living — without being able to get free. Or turn around. It’s seeing what’s already happened, all that reality that you can’t do anything about but watch pass.”
Most of Vanishing Monuments sustains this level of intensity, which is part of why it’s a challenging read. The book is painstaking, in the literal sense of that compound word: it took enormous pain to make this book. It’s a novel that, for all its organizational strategies, reads with the immediacy of a memoir. But the lifelong struggle Alani describes, while worthy to read about, requires small sips to fully ingest.
The phrase “concentric rebellions” appears a little over halfway through Vanishing Monuments, and that phrase aptly describes the way this book proceeds. It’s organized by the “memory palace” technique of recalling information. Each chapter is a room in Alani’s childhood house and opens with a short second-person description of the space, a kind of invocation of the remembrances stored inside. Within this structure, the book circles languidly around events and experiences recounted in nonchronological order. These memories of Alani’s are touchstones for exploring their life, including art projects, relationships, and — most crucially — the abrupt end of their relationship with their unstable mother. Vanishing Monuments doesn’t have a plot as such, but a series of nodes, around which language and memory circle in “concentric rebellions.”
One of those nodes is a crowbar left in Alani’s bedroom. Another, Hedwig’s vintage camera. A third, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The node that gives the book its title is Jochen Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism, a conceptual art project that appeared in Hamburg, Germany, from 1986 to 1993. Over those years, the lead pillar of the monument was lowered gradually into the ground until it disappeared. As Alani describes the project:
When the monument vanishes, we ourselves are tasked with keeping up the struggle. We’re left with the impression of the monument’s absence, with remembering what we want and need to remember. In pulling away from something, in obscuring its easy presence, you get a sense of what the thing really is to you.… Most monuments, eventually, make their memories stuffy. They make you think that there is only one version of something that you should remember. They make you think the past is clean and over.
There’s more on that page about this concept and about Hedwig, who is meant to be a vanishing monument in Alani’s life. There’s even more throughout Vanishing Monuments about the past and its traps: “I’ve begun to think that the past is not worth keeping around simply because it actually happened.” But despite the clean explanation here, the vanishing monument — like other nodes populating the book — resists being reduced to a one-to-one metaphor. Hedwig’s house also seems to be a monument; part of Stintzi’s narrative involves Alani preparing the home for sale, giving away the objects inside it, dismantling Hedwig’s photography darkroom. Slowly the house’s power over Alani vanishes, leaving empty spaces that they photograph and then label with the names of objects that had been there.
But is the house still a house if no one lives in it? “For a moment, I wonder if it’s still a camera if it doesn’t have film inside? If it doesn’t have the capacity to hold on to things?” Vanishing Monuments, like the artwork it’s named for, appears to reach a final resolution, but it feels emotionally unfinished. The house is sold, the mother is going to die, and the prodigal child goes back where they belong. But nothing is really over. The memory palace still exists inside their mind, forever stuffed with what they cannot leave behind. Appropriately, Vanishing Monuments is an unforgettable book, a restless, rapturous read.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in the Washington Post, the Believer, the Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.