Arts·Shelfies

This new book vividly captures the time distortion and grief we've all been feeling

Sheila Heti's Pure Colour steps out of the five stages of grief and into what's been called the sixth: meaning.

Sheila Heti's Pure Colour steps out of the five stages of grief and into what's been called the sixth: meaning

"Time distortion." The clock face of Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster, London, with Westminster Bridge over the River Thames to the left, 6th June 1985. (John Downing/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Shelfies is a column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.

In the 90s, there was a popular series of books called Magic Eye. They consisted of pages upon pages of autostereograms, or 2D patterns that, when you put your nose close to the image and slowly pulled away, revealed a hidden 3D image.

I find myself thinking about these images a lot lately as I consider why it's so hard for me to read books or watch movies that depict the COVID-19 pandemic. As a writer of nonfiction, I find it can be hard to write about events or experiences with any real clarity while I'm still in their thrall. It's like my nose is pressed up right against their image, and I don't have the space yet to pull back and really see what's hidden in the patterns.

A lot of the media I've consumed that has tried to tackle the global pandemic while we're still in it feels that way to me, too — as if the creator can't pull back far enough to see what's really there yet. So it came as a surprise to me when I found a book that seemed to understand this strange, liminal space we're still inhabiting, even though it wasn't written about the pandemic at all: Sheila Heti's surreal, almost mythical new book Pure Colour.

The book's opening premise prepares you for the strange world you're about to enter: it opens on God stepping back from his creation, "like a painter standing back from the canvas," as he takes stock of what he's made. "This is the moment we are living in — the moment of God standing back," Heti writes. No one knows how long this period has lasted or is going to last. All that the narrator tells us is that God has split into three critics in the sky and, taking stock of this first draft, is in the process of determining what should stay and what should go when he tries his hand at creation again.

A random dot autostereogram encoding a 3D scene of a shark. (Fred Hsu/Wikimedia Commons)

Suffice it to say, the first draft of creation is far from ideal. Shortly after introducing us to the protagonist Mira and the book's odd premise, Heti pauses the narration to introduce the existential terror that permeates Pure Colour's fictional world. "It is true that the world was failing at its one task — of remaining a world," Heti writes. "Pieces were breaking off. Seasons had become postmodern. We no longer knew where in the calendar we were by the weather… The ice cubes were melting. The species were dying. The last of the fossil fuels were being burned up." Heti's world, it seems, is heating up in advance of its destruction as God prepares to try again with his second draft.

It's hard to read this and not think of all the news reports proclaiming imminent doom as our planet heats up. The most recent report claims that rich countries must end their oil and gas production entirely by 2034 — 12 short years away — in order to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius and give poorer countries time to replace fossil fuel income. Considering how reluctant our world is to give up fossil fuels — or, more directly, the money made by fossil fuels — it's hard to see this happening. Our world, like Heti's, seems primed for apocalypse. 

And yet, life continues: here, and in Pure Colour. We continue to scroll through social media, fall in love, figure out living arrangements, find jobs. Mira meets Annie and falls in love. She gets an apartment with a weird roommate. She gets a job at a lamp store. Time passes.

Until Mira's father dies, after which, it doesn't. Or, at least, it doesn't pass in the same way. Part two of Pure Colour — which is about what happens after Mira's father dies — is divorced from any sense of narrative time. We are told immediately that Mira felt a peace she didn't expect when her father died, because she knew he was somehow still there, that death did not snuff him out. What's more, she feels his spirit come into her body. 

This information is not given to us in any particular order. We don't know how long in clock time she felt at peace, or what time it was when her father's spirit came into her body, or what time zone she was in when that peace wore away and left her crying. We don't know how long Mira is in her father's house after he's died. We don't know how long she's been wondering about the nature of life and missing her father and mindlessly playing "the jewel game" on her phone. This refusal of time mimics the time distortion that can happen while you're grieving. According to the Centre for Loss and Life Transition, that distorted feeling that time is either flying by or crawling, as well as the idea that your past and future "are frozen in place," are normal parts of grieving. 

"Time distortion." Alan Wilson adjusts a clock face to British Summer Time on March 26, 2010 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Heti's portrayal of grief rings particularly true now, two years into a global pandemic. Though the majority of the book was written before the pandemic, she wrote much of it while grieving the death of her own father. So many of us are grieving loved ones lost due to COVID-19, whose worldwide death toll has passed 6 million — but even those of us who have been lucky enough to be spared having a loved one die are still feeling a collective grief. However tenuous they may have been before a global pandemic, our relationships, sense of normalcy, security (both economic and physical), and collective and individual senses of safety have been irrevocably altered as a result of COVID-19. There are studies from England, France, and Italy confirming that there has been a widespread sense of time distortion during strict lockdowns in 2020. One can only imagine that, two years later, this hasn't gotten any better. It makes sense that the carousel of masking, social distancing, isolating, vaccinating, and opening back up just to close again would distort and jumble our sense of time. 

There are speculations as to why this time distortion has happened. Studies have shown that emotions impact how we perceive time, which makes sense since humans don't have any organ to process time specifically. We mainly understand time through other senses, such as sight and hearing, but in a complex manner that requires numerous parts of the brain to be acting in concert with one another. If we consider the impact grief can have on time perception — and that we are all grieving for the world we once knew, as well as the people we love who were part of it — emotions impacting the brain could also impact how we perceive the time around us.

If we consider the impact grief can have on time perception — and that we are all grieving for the world we once knew, as well as the people we love who were part of it — emotions impacting the brain could also impact how we perceive the time around us.- Alicia Elliott

Another reason — one that has not been discussed as much — is that our understanding of time is now entirely dependent upon capitalism. As Joe Zadeh lays out in astonishing, fascinating detail in his Noema Magazine essay The Tyranny of Time, the clock we currently measure and value our time by was created not out of scientific necessity but economic necessity. Where before we would use the position of the sun and the phases of the moon, for example, now we use mathematical atomic clocks, which have no relationship to nature or the Earth at all. If the punch in/punch out/get the kids/make dinner/watch Netflix/go to bed by 10pm EST regimen we have forced our lives into is disrupted, our sense of time is, too.

"One of the hardest elements to imagine is what capitalism has done to our perception of time via clocks," Zadeh writes. "It now seems embedded into our very psychology to view time as a commodity that can be spent or wasted… [Time is now] a useful infrastructure for capitalism to coordinate the exploitation and conversion of bodies, labor and goods into value." In other words, time is money — and when a global pandemic disrupts our routines so completely, it confuses our understanding and experience of how we are meant to value the hours of our lives. We, like, Mira, are unmoored in time, playing jewel games on our phones as we fumble for what to do next.

Then something even more surreal happens in Pure Colour — something that, to me, captures exactly how it feels to be living in rotating lockdowns. While walking the same lakeshore she and her father used to visit when she was a child, Mira's grief-ridden spirit rises into a tree and gets stuck inside a leaf, unable to get out. When she realizes the soul of her father is in the leaf with her, her reactions are not unlike what many of us have experienced being trapped at home — the various joy, love, annoyance and frustration that comes with being stuck with your loved ones for long stretches of time. Mira voyeuristically watches people's lives and interactions as they pass below her branch; she reflects on how small she really is in the grand scheme of things; she figures out how to annoy her father out of his silence so she can have someone to talk to; she philosophizes with her father about God, life, death and impending apocalypse. 

This all rings true to what many of us have done over the course of this collective pause we've called lockdown. We've had to stare down many uncomfortable realities about the systems we believed in and trusted prior to COVID-19, from the governments we elect and fund to the media that proclaims it's their job to hold those governments accountable. And we've had the space to contemplate our relationships with and trust in these institutions, and evaluate more closely their confusing back-and-forth decision-making, because we've been metaphorically stuck in this leaf, together, incapable of continuing our daily lives as we once knew them. We've had to variously come to terms with God, life, death, and impending apocalypse, too. 

But this is where, for me, Heti's book breaks from the darkness. She steps out of the well-known five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance — and comes to what David Kessler has coined the sixth stage of grief: meaning.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review about the collective grief of this pandemic, Kessler explained why he came up with this sixth stage: "I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we can find light in those times." Strangely, miraculously, Heti's book about grief — and the feeling of being trapped in leaves and the impending apocalypse — gives us that light. 

The idea that Earth, which has been here long before us and will be here long after us, will still continue, regardless of whether we are here to witness it, does comfort me.- Alicia Elliott

During one of the in-leaf conversations between Mira and her father (which are structured so you can't quite tell who is saying what), they say, "What is lovable is not humans, but life. And life will always be here? Yes, there are cycles, and if the earth gets sick, it will get well again, in maybe a million or two billion years. It will do what it needs to, because it is self-correcting in the fullness of time." The idea that Earth, which has been here long before us and will be here long after us, will still continue, regardless of whether we are here to witness it, does comfort me.

I am reminded of what Zedah wrote in his piece on time: "In the natural world, the movement of 'hours' or 'weeks' do not matter. Thus the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the sudden extinction of species that have lived on Earth for millions of years, the rapid spread of viruses, the pollution of our soil and water — the true impact of all of this is beyond our realm of understanding because of our devotion to a scale of time and activity relevant to nothing except humans." By placing ourselves, our lives, our art, our understandings of time and culture and progress, in the centre of the history of this wondrous planet, we have already wreaked so much havoc. 

Perhaps by taking ourselves out from the centre of everything, by pulling back from the Magic Eye mess we've created, we can truly see and assess what we've done. Perhaps we can move from grieving to collectively making meaning of our time here, and leave as much of this beautiful Earth intact as possible for the benefit of the next draft of creation, whatever it may be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019).

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