“The Bruise” by Magdalena Zurawski

February 3, 2009

Posted by Nick Sarno

 

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One night well into my second year of college, when the humming in my skull wouldn’t stop and sleep became impossible, I got up from my mattress on the floor and worked my way to the living room. With my blanket clutched at my throat, I walked to the window and stared outside. It was snowing. The strange feeling in my head seemed to shift outward. As I watched the snow fall, everything seemed to change: I was no longer looking at the snow falling through the light from the lamp on the street, I was no longer looking at the houses or the cars or the trees in the park beyond them. I saw all of these things, but I saw them as words. Instead of a car I saw CAR and in place of the apartment across the street I saw APARTMENT. When I looked very closely, I could see that the APARTMENT was made up of WINDOWs and GUTTERs and thousands of little BRICKs. SNOW was falling everywhere. Suddenly, I began to hear the words as I saw them. It was calming at first, a way of grounding the experience, but when I focused on the snow, the chorus of whispers became so intense that I had to step away.

I fell onto the couch and covered my head with the blanket, trying to block out the noise. It was a long night. Other voices began to speak. Through them, I could hear the sound of footsteps pacing back and forth along the hall. At one point I peeked my head out from under the covers and saw William Burroughs sitting across from me. He stood up a little and scooted the chair closer to the couch. He told me that everything was going to be okay, that he’d keep watch the rest of the night. He seemed kinder than I had imagined he would be.

When I could finally imagine the arrival of morning, I stood up and got dressed. I slipped into my roommate’s room and grabbed the few dollars tossed on his desk, left the apartment and walked through the cold to the 24 hour diner a few blocks away. I sat down and ordered a western omelet, thankful that I could get the words out. I was the only customer in the place and so the food arrived rather quickly. When I began to eat, the feeling I thought I had shaken returned, stronger this time. Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” was playing softly over the radio and as I chewed I began to feel the food grow to life in my mouth. It wasn’t eggs anymore, but feathers and beaks and bone that I was grinding through my teeth. I felt myself getting sick, and so I emptied the money in my pockets on the table and hurried out, practically running back home and into bed. I fell asleep as I heard my roommates making coffee and taking showers.

I had nights and, less often, days like that from time to time. I was certain that they marked me for some kind of genius. Even though I never told anyone about them, the fact that they existed gave me a strange sense of pride. Eventually, slowly, they ceased to arrive. And although I never actually forgot about them, they occupied a corner of my mind that I did not often visit.

Recently, I spent a busy day running errands, waiting in lines, taking care of things I should have done weeks earlier. I went all day without eating, running on only a few cups of coffee. I didn’t have time to go grocery shopping and when I made it home I had nothing in the kitchen but the makings of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That first bite, tired and hungry, reminded me of entire weeks spent living like that: sleeping little, eating less, hurrying all over town. I realized it then: I hadn’t been a genius at all. I had been starving.

I mention all of this because The Bruise exists in this state. If you’ve ever lived through a night like that, the landscape of the novel is instantly recognizable. And if you haven’t, the book may bring such nights on.

And I mention it, too, because it’s nearly impossible to write a review of it.

The Bruise is Magdalena Zurawski’s first novel, published by The University of Alabama Press. It tells the story of M- who, near the beginning of her last semester in college, begins translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies for her German literature course. The evening she begins the work, an angel appears to her. Because she is afraid or, perhaps, simply because she is overwhelmed, M- attempts to strike the angel and receives a large bruise on her head. The bruise is a mark of the visit, and this mark sets her apart from everyone else.

Other things happen: the doorknob in her dorm room begins reciting poetry, which M- feels compelled to transcribe. Ghosts, memories, dreams and reality become confused. M-‘s bruise becomes an external mark of the change brought about by her visitation (of an angel, of literature), and she begins a quest to find the person who would see the bruise for what it is and, in turn, truly understand her. She finds this other, momentarily, in L-, though when the bruise eventually comes between them, it is once again up to M- to make sense of the world, alone.

Despite all of the supernatural happenings, when all of the magic is stripped away, The Bruise becomes one of the most original college novels in recent memory. And stripping away the magic in this case is not sacrilege. As herself M- thinks as she eats a ham steak in the school cafeteria: “…my eye would catch the meat in the fluorescent light in a certain way that let me see that the ham steak that I was about to eat was not pink but that it was covered in a purple film an iridescent purple film like the inside of a sea shell. This made me think that the meat has a special kind of magic. It wasn’t an extraordinary magic but an ordinary one. It was the magic of knowing that the comforting order of the ordinary which sometimes appeared as the extraordinary purple glow of a piece of meat was in fact just ordinary and it would always rise to greet my mind in the exact same manner that it had greeted it before and for this reason I loved to eat ham steak best.”

It is not a matter of editing out the magic entirely, as much as it is replacing the extraordinary magic with the ordinary. The inside of a seashell may just be a ham steak, the doorknob may just be a way of gaining access to someplace else, the angel may simply be the first line of a poem. But these things are magic, too. When viewed this way, the novel is, as I said, an extraordinary college novel.

It isn’t Wolfe’s Dupont University. There is no violence, no bribes, no political figures. When sex happens, there are no lacrosse teams involved. It is simply awkward and necessary. The conversations about literature are not well spoken and erudite. Rather, M- loses track of the conversation quickly, pulling a line here and there for her own use and letting the rest slip into the background as her mind follows its own course. It is the kind of college where not wanting to leave the library for fear of losing the good seat will decide the rest of the evening. Because those are the kinds of things that happen, too.

Stylistically, Zurawski shares some common ground with Stein, but that comparison seems almost too easy. The absence of commas, the use of conjunctions, even the rhythm is reminiscent of Stein, but Zurawski’s sentences are powered by a different kind of logic. It may take a little time to grow acquainted with her style (or the manner in which M- thinks), but when it clicks, the logic becomes inescapable.

At the window I could see the wind was blowing hard and the streetlights made a shadow of a tree branch dance across the frosted glass in front of me. When I opened it the light and shadow fell flat off the glass onto my body and the light and shadow that didn’t fit onto my body fell flat off my hips and stretched out onto the floor. Limbs moved on my stomach and if I looked down on myself to see where they fell I could feel a slight pressure through my robe-a warmth as if I were being touched but of course I wasn’t being touched but seeing the shadows of branches there made me feel as though I were being touched. As long as I looked it was as though I were being touched and so I felt touched.

At first glance, it’s possible to imagine writing such a passage more succinctly. But should you actually attempt to edit or rewrite it, you’ll find that it’s impossible to do so without losing a great deal. What appears to be an almost automatic writing is in fact incredibly precise.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying M- figures it all out in the end. And, like all bildungsroman, she picks up her pen at the end and begins to write.

Luckily for us, Magdalena Zurawksi is more than just hungry.

 

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