Review by Melissa Olivera
Mary Cappello begins her fascinating new book, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack (University of Chicago Press, October 2016) with two epigraphs. The first, a quote by Virginia Woolf, speaks about the process and problems of diary-keeping as a chronicle of moods when the physical world continually asserts itself: “What happens is, as usual,” Woolf writes, “that I’m going to write about the soul, and life breaks in.”
The second provides an etymology of the word “almanack”, which perhaps derives from an Arabic word meaning “place where a camel kneels, station on a journey, halt at the end of a day’s travel, hence (in extended use) place of residence.”
Cappello’s almanack then positions itself as a way station of mood: a resting place where writer and reader both might try to make sense of moods, even though life might break the mood at any time.
Cappello recognizes that it is perhaps an impossible task to pin down so ineffable a thing as mood; her book is a similarly tough thing to pin down. Is this memoir? Not entirely. A book-length essay? A series of interrelated essays? Difficult to say, but when you spend time in this mood almanack it is clear that the art is in the trying — an urge that might be familiar to practitioners of the essay form. Cappello goes so far as to invent a new term altogether to describe her project: cloud-writing. This does a decent job of describing the book’s nonlinear drift, but also of conveying the feel of the book, which pushes us along from one topic to another. I also expect no two readers will react in the same way to this book, like two people looking at the same cloud. Still, cloud-writing describes the malleability and adaptability of the essay form itself or, as Cappello puts it, “that nongenre that allows for untoward movement, apposition, and assemblage, that is one part conundrum, one part accident, and that fosters a taste for discontinuity.” It’s perhaps yet another useful way of thinking about variants of the form, one to add to the tool box with lyric essay and all the rest.
The book’s real gift is how it talks about mood and the urgency of the creative task. The challenge to capture the ever-shifting world of mood when the physical world is always encroaching is worthy because the result is art, which has the ability to evoke a certain particular mood in others. Indeed, this book takes on the task of examining nearly every aspect of mood. Cappello looks for its traces in the family photos she examines, and explores her own childhood experiences around her father’s explosive moods and her mother’s depressed moods. She doesn’t stop at personal memory, though. In her chapter on hearing, gong baths, songs, and ear anatomy are all fodder for discussions of mood. Think, for example, about how hearing a certain song can transport the hearer back to a very specific mood. Layers of observation and interrogation give depth and color to how mood works — and how our moods work on us.
One of my favorite sections of the book discusses mood disorders or, as Cappello puts it, “our charting and drugging that which we know so little about.” Here, she wonders whether our attempts at measuring and treating our moods also change how we experience them. From mood rings to psychiatric literature to the dark mood that descends on her one day in Job Lot, Cappello’s voice drifts around cloud-like. She seems as comfortable in the realms of history and science as she does in popular culture, and the facts and she employs from other disciplines add texture and nuance to the work.
If that sounds like it might be a heady mix, it can be. Cappello’s book isn’t one you read so much as wade into little by little; I, at least, needed a little time to ponder and process each section. Its freeform riffing off the common theme of mood reminded me in some ways of Lia Purpura’s work, and I think fans experimental essays of every stripe will be interested. Be prepared for the writing to challenge you, though. Cappello herself says, “I like writing that resists its reader; I’m suspicious of the easy invitation that bows to protocol, or the stuff that chatters recognizably, incapable of interestingly interrupting my day by making my heart skip a beat or requiring that I listen with my eyes.” Nevertheless, I admired that Life Breaks In didn’t mind having more questions than answers, and that it allowed me to sit inside that space for a while before my life broke back in.