The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager

Sorrow Proper CoverFrom the first sentence of The Sorrow Proper (“The library may close…”), impending ends begin to accrue. Truly, “impending” is the simplest way to encapsulate this circuitous, ethereal and captivating novel. Lindsey Drager’s first, this is a thoroughly satisfying book that delves artfully into the underside of human lives.

The characters in the book that Drager designates with proper names are a group of female librarians working toward their obsolescence as the library shifts away from carrying books. This group of women regularly meets for drinks after work, sessions that are an incomplete salve for the impending loss of the institution their lives revolve around.

At one such session the women talk about what they have lost, and a terrible accident they were witness to comes-up. “I don’t know what it is I lost, [Avis] says, but something happened after the Bronson girl. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is...but I feel it fully gone. Grief without an axis, Harriet says. That’s the worst kind.”

Here, and throughout this novel, Drager brings clarity to aspects of human existence beneath the everyday. Avis is recollecting about an accident that had little to do with her directly, but somehow created loss for her. She tries to ascertain what she lost but cannot figure it out beyond knowing that something is fully gone.

I had my first child this year, and starting the wild ride of parenthood has coincided with reading and re-reading The Sorrow Proper. Writing this review has come slowly as time spent with this book requires a sinking into strata. Friends ask me what the biggest change has been since I had a child. Bringing another life into the world highlights the fragility of existence. I knew this before having my son, of course, but now it is more palpable. The Sorrow Proper acknowledges and articulates this and more.

This book enacts the fragility of existence by telling and not telling of tragedy, of ends, and by moving toward and through the grief that accompanies each.

The characters without proper names in this novel are known by their occupations. They are the deaf mathematician and the photographer. They meet at the library and have an intense but fleeting relationship. They are both alive mourning the loss of the other at different points in the text so there is a purposeful slippage of time. Whatever time-space they inhabit, we get interesting, often cryptic, bits of conversation and thought from each of them.

“The deaf mathematician wants to tell the librarian that she knows about end and what it means to reach it, that studying growth means studying decay.” This statement details opposites that Drager has her characters batting around throughout The Sorrow Proper. Growth cannot exist without decay and vice versa, which points toward one understanding of what The Sorrow Proper (or proper sorrow) is, a persistent understanding that nothing humans experience on earth is eternal. Important too here is that we are reading what the mathematician wants to say to one of the librarians. She does not say it, she cannot say it as she uses sign language, but her thinking starts with “that she knows about end.” Throughout the text, the deaf mathematician has sage-like thoughts that she cannot always express, though people need to hear them.

This excerpt of dialog between the mathematician and the photographer is a distillation of their relationship: “...In order for life to work, you’ve got to suspend your disbelief. You’ve got to forget that everything ends, she says. ...Or, he tells her, you have to believe that it doesn’t.” Suspension of disbelief is, to a large degree, how people, relationships and societies continue.

The mathematician states this as obvious—a truth people spend much energy to avoid thinking about. The photographer reaches for an alternative, for belief that there won’t be an end versus her perspective that people try to forget there will be.

Further on, Drager has the mathematician express a related notion, “...[W]e know death is coming, but we pretend it is not. This is the thesis of being: we drive forth in order to reach the end, yet doing so is our protection against remembering that it is there. In other words, we repeat the same behavior hoping for different results.” The last phrase here, an oft-quoted definition for insanity, is one of the more startling “in other words” I have encountered. It stops me in my tracks because it is true, that we strive, accrue, accumulate and strive some more to protect ourselves from remembering that everything ends.

For the mathematician, for Drager and for anyone willing to realize it, existence itself is insanity.

So it is. The Sorrow Proper presents this paradox skillfully enough that I accept my insanity and the challenge that, though insane, what else is there to do, but learn from existence, from living, from what we go through and what life presents us with. Once the mathematician is gone, once she has ended, the photographer. “...[K]nows there is something to learn from lack, from loss: he has studied the vacant veins of her lipstick-stained glasses, the routes where the chapped skin did not touch the glass. ...There is something to say for echo, for image; the marks survive, though the lips are gone.”

There is, certainly, something to say for “echo,” for “image,” for “marks,” and Drager has, once again, utilized a cliché to great effect. Artfully, smartly, responsibly, Drager knows that this type of learning is not fully formed, it is not something with defined edges, but the nuance of empty white boxes on pages, the haze that grief can be.


Susan Scarlata has lived among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, the fog of San Francisco, and now calls Jackson, Wyoming home. Throughout shifts in landscape and time, Scarlata has been writing poetry and essays and teaching about them too. Scarlata’s book, It Might Turn Out We Are Real, is available from Horseless Press. She holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Denver and is the Editor of Lost Roads Press. Recent creative work and reviews can be found in the Van Gogh Gogh anthology, on the PEN America website, and is forthcoming in the anthology Certain Stars Shoot Madly.