‘Heart Museum’ by Durga Chew-Bose

The heart of Durga Chew-Bose’s book of essays Too Much and Not the Mood is the first and longest piece, “Heart Museum.”

A reader will notice in the index that this essay is 92 pages long and wonder both how they will get through and how (and if) the writer will pull off such a length without losing her readers’ attention and focus.

That’s the most startling thing about the piece: in an age when our attention spans barely last a few pages before we might check our phones or flip restlessly through the pages of the book we’re reading (even if we love it, it’s just the energy of our time) to see where the essay or chapter ends so that we may anticipate our commitment and when we’ll get our reward, “Heart Museum” forces you to pay attention, to keep reading, both out of sheer curiosity of what exactly the writer is getting at or might do with the essay, and precisely because no matter how many pages you flip you won’t see the end so you have nothing left to do but read. And that’s surprisingly freeing.

Around twenty pages in, Chew-Bose writes,

Isn’t it fun to read a sentence that races ahead of itself? That has the effect of stopping short–of dirt and cutaway rocks tumbling down the edge of the cliff, alerting you to the drop?

That is exactly what it feels like to read “Heart Museum.” You’re sitting in Starbucks reading, and you don’t understand why your heart is starting to race as you try to keep up with the words. You want to keep going though you don’t always know why, especially if there’s a tangent that’s not for you. Still, you want to see where she goes with her observations and questions.

“We’re the type to ask too many questions–an irritating amount, really. But who ask without claim or exigency. The want is the want and it goes on like that.”

At the end, I was filled with admiration at what the writer does with her essay. She brings together seemingly meaningless and scattered bits and makes the reader interested in them because of the energy of the pace. She connects the end of the piece to the beginning in a way you couldn’t expect when you’re wondering halfway through how she’ll manage to finish and make it all work as you’re starting to realize the point of the essay is to create a museum of the heart, any heart it honestly doesn’t matter who it belongs to, because you understand her hope:

That awareness isn’t merely a stopgap; that it develops a tally.

 

The rest of the pieces in the book do slow down but also have bright moments, like the short “Miserable” and the lovely “Summer Pictures,”  though the success of the pace in the first essay stays with the reader until the last page.

For me, Chew-Bose’s strength is writing when there’s apparently no point or focus until she reminds us  “how crucial it is to preserve a sense of the special,” along with beautiful, telling sentences like:

“My skin is warm. It does not cool. The heat is in the seams.”

“…I tasted city smog outside another city’s airport and knew right then that I was a city kid.”

With the holidays and the end of 2017 approaching, Too Much and Not the Mood is a good read as we begin to ask ourselves what the year has meant, or as Chew-Bose asks in her “Heart Museum:”

“Aren’t we all overrun by the blotting-out that is inevitable? How every year we claim that this year went by faster. What was realized? Did I connect? If I’m mostly–often only–the sum of what I’ve noticed, should I keep better track?”

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