Elegies for the Brokenhearted begins in a rush and never loses momentum. It is crafted with galloping long sentences, clause within clause within clause, that swerve the reader away and then back and then away again. The characters are so sharp, their scenarios so poignant, their interactions so painful and real… This book is a devastating joy.
It’s a novel in stories—or, more accurately, in elegies—direct addresses by Mary Murphy to five central people in her life, which tell the stories of their lives, or at least those periods where their lives intersected with hers. This nested-story structure is a kind of herky-jerky stop-and-start format that can sometimes be jarring, but Hodgen makes it work beautifully, telling us always the story of Mary while making it look like Mary is telling us the stories of those around her.
Mary herself has lived since childhood in an almost impenetrable halo of silence—silence as rebellion, silence as a defensive coping mechanism, silence as a sarcastic attack. She always lets others speak for her, or no one at all. And yet the whole book, written in second-person direct address to each person being elegied, seems to be Mary’s attempt to reconcile the silence she’s spent her life ensconced in, to make others see how important they were to her—once it’s too late for it to matter.
Every character herein is consistently striving, reaching out in wrong-headed ways for more, yet secure in the conviction that he is meant for something better, easier, more rarefied. Each person knows that she is infinitely more special than the mundane and bitter circumstances in which she finds herself, time and again. But most of them do nothing to hasten their transfiguration, adding to the general sense of despair and frustration that permeates the novel.
Another marked similarity between the novel’s disparate personalities is how each is obsessed with death. Uncle Mike only gossips about friends who have died. Carson, Mary’s college roommate, decorates the wall above her bed with a constellation of Polaroids of her deceased relatives. One of Mary’s mother’s dependable morning rituals is reading—and mocking—the obituaries in the local paper. The entire book, of course, stars a cast of characters who have passed away.
One more overarching similarity between everyone is a desperate, suffocating loneliness, coupled with a near-hysterical inability to love. And yet the whole book is a vindication, in a way, of all this sorrow, all this despair. That Mary, who has spent her life silent and resentful, can recollect and reify these small, sad, bitter lives winds up speaking to an inherent beauty in all of us. Her ability to penetrate the layers of meanness, of abuse and anger and petty fury, and to render people real, is a parting gift, a gift to those parted, an indication that, despite everything, for a time they were truly understood.
At one point in the narration, Mary states, “Even the evocation of loneliness was something undertaken with the purpose of communicating it to someone, who would hear it and perhaps understand it.” This is a beautiful summation of the crux of this sad novel—no matter how alone we are, no matter how we despair, in our private moments, that we will die without ever having made a true connection with another living soul, someone has been watching, someone has been affected. Someone, somewhere, if only for a little while, has understood.
Oriana is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn with her longtime boyfriend and their two dogs. She edits for a slew of publishers, including McSweeney’s, Random House, NYRB, Melville House, and many more. She writes a blog about Brooklyn art and culture at www.brooklyn-spaces.com, and she reads like a maniac.