The ordinary history of Christianity – not the wars fought in its name or the popes and martyrs and televangelists who bob along near the crest of its waves, but the faith as it is found and lost by everyday people – is rife with instances of what might be called “scripture shock.” Abigail Hutchinson, a subject of Jonathan Edwards’ “experimental religion” during the Great Awakening of the 18th century, described such an experience for Edwards’ notebooks. Determined to work out the matter of her salvation, she plowed through the Bible as quickly as she could, racing from disobedience to flood to murder to the shame of a naked father, a banished mother, lovers speared like roaches, cities slaughtered, locusts, boils. Too much scripture, too fast. Abigail Hutchinson collapsed; she died not long after.
It’s usually not so bad. In Fort Riley in Kansas, I met three young Iraq veterans who described episodes of scripture shock of their own; but they considered it a successful treatment for an illness they called belief. For one man, a medic raised a fundamentalist Christian, it was a particularly bloody passage of the Book of Numbers that he studied before entering the Army that overloaded him. He became an atheist. His two friends, one a lapsed Catholic, the other a North Carolinian who’d joined to fight holy war against Islam, reported similar epiphanies of disbelief in response to close and rapid reading of scripture in a war zone.
Death and disbelief are only two of the possible outcomes. A third, by far the most common, is unquestioning belief. Scripture can drown doubt. All suffering begins to look the same; some simply call it sin, and declare themselves its enemies, a response every bit as reasonable, if reductionist, as the madness of Pip, the stow-away on Melville’s Pequod who loses his mind after falling overboard and treading water in a vast, blank sea for hours before rescue.
Peter Trachtenberg’s terrifying and wondrous Book of Calamities, if consumed too quickly, might induce similar responses. (Disclosure: Peter Manseau, the editor of Search, and I published an early draft of a section of the first chapter in a book called Killing the Buddha.) There are more painful chronicles – anthologies of lynching, compilations of genocidal documents, black books of the Holocaust – but few that hurt on so many registers, from the mundane to the inconceivable, the personal to the political, the absurd to the outrageous to the stupid to the sad. A partial inventory: a friend with cancer; the author as junky; the Book of Job; the dead of 9/11; a martyr and a lion; Rwanda; the Holocaust; twins befriended by Trachtenberg who are afflicted by a disease that flays them alive, over and over, for 27 years; Vietnam vets trapped in their own stories; victims of AIDS in Calcutta, trapped in Mother Theresa’s; another friend of the author, his head stuck in a plastic bag.
And yet, The Book of Calamities never wallows. Trachtenberg is as humble as he is nimble, and both qualities are prerequisites for his inquiry—or rather, set of inquiries, since the book is framed as “Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meanings.” It might as easily have been subtitled “Five Hypotheses,” since in each chapter Trachtenberg not only addresses a different facet of suffering but also a variation on religion’s or philosophy’s or law’s responses, drawing on Gilgamesh, Boethius, Buddha, Simone Weil, and many others, always respectfully, never conclusively. “This book is an investigation of the ways people find meaning in suffering,” he writes, “or try not to be driven mad by the possibility that it means nothing.” He allows that possibility: “Suffering may not inherently mean anything, but I believe that giving it meaning is the only way people can escape being ultimately destroyed by it.” The rest of the book might be summed up in three words: Or maybe not.
This is The Book of Calamities’ remarkable achievement: to the shock of suffering, Trachtenberg responds with a masterful collage of personal narrative, journalism, biblical criticism, and layman’s philosophy that gently and subtly guides the reader past both unbelief and certainty. That’s not as easy as it sounds, for they’re represented in The Book of Calamities by, among others, Buddha and Mother Theresa, respectively, and Trachtenberg gives them their due. He wants us to understand them and appreciate them as best we can, but when their traditions, their hypotheses, turn away from or euphemize or gloss any suffering at all – Thich Nhat Hahn fails to connect with a group of broken Vietnam vets at a Buddhist retreat, Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, swept away by the beauty of suffering, fail to provide painkillers –Trachtenberg collects that data, too, and weighs it.
“Before suffering people can form a coherent picture of their suffering,” he writes, “they must first ask questions about it, or maybe of it. In doing so, they are performing the work of science and philosophy, interrogating their reality in order to derive a thesis about it.” But those who suffer are at a disadvantage, he continues. “They pose their questions in the silence of a hospital room or the murmuring heat of a refugee camp, in a house where someone has died; his clothes still hang in the closet, bearing a trace of his smell.” So Trachtenberg, a man who despite years of drug addiction, overdoses, and a suicide attempt does not believe he has suffered much on the scale of things, joins them in their questioning, adding to their urgency his privileged calm.
The first question is the simplest: “Why me?” In Trachtenberg’s hands, though, it becomes: Why not me? Why her? The her is his friend Linda, dead of cancer. Long before that that, though, she was “a beautiful young woman with translucent olive skin and the eyes of a Sienese Madonna.” A saint and a genius, according to Trachtenberg’s memory, her virtues disguised by her day job as a functionary at an arts nonprofit with Trachtenberg. “Like practically everybody else in our office, she wrote poems, but hers weren’t about her genitals or her feelings. They were about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and they were sestinas.” Trachtenberg, meanwhile, is a disaster, a spoiled middle class kid who thinks suffering is a synonym for thrills and who finds both in a syringe. He buys drugs, gets mugged, buys more drugs, squirts blood in other people’s homes, buys more drugs, tries to kill himself with 50 fiornal and a razor blade, and fails, partly because Linda saves him.
In his memory, she miraculously intuits his condition and spirits him off to a hospital. Then, later, she becomes ill, first with an sickness that bloats her grotesquely, then with an even worse one that wastes her to the bone. There is an inverted logic to this, an answer to the chapter’s question. Why her? Because she took his suffering onto herself. Because only the good die young. Because fate loves irony. Because God tests those who can bear it. Phrased so glibly, such explanations are horrifying. And yet, they’re rooted in the rational impulse, the search for causality that has long prompted interpreters of the Book of Job, an account of which Trachtenberg splices with Linda’s story, to look for justice within Job’s suffering. “Order,” Trachtenberg writes, “is the nest we make for our minds.”
But it may not be reality. The last time he sees Linda before her death they reminisce about the early years of his friendship, including her almost-magical rescue of him. “Linda stopped me. ‘That’s not what happened,’ she said.” There had been no miracles. Trachtenberg had called her and told her what he’d done, a detail he’d erased. And they hadn’t been close, then, either. In fact, she’d always wondered, “Why me?” There is no answer: “I couldn’t say why I’d chosen her. I couldn’t say why she’d been chosen.”
Randomness is not the end, however. Order may be a fiction, but in Trachtenberg’s telling it’s a necessary story. The centerpiece of the book is a long chapter on Rwanda’s attempts to reckon with murder on a scale that makes the Nazis look like a few bad apples. There were no death camps in Rwanda, only people. Some of them were killed; most of them were killers. But the question of who was a victim isn’t so simple. The Tutsis, no doubt; but what of the genocidaires, herded by cowardice and chance into horrible crimes? Trachtenberg juxtaposes his interviews with Rwandans with the story of Andrea Yates, who in 2001 drowned her five children in a bathtub, believing she was saving them, and of Oedipus, who truly knew not what he did. The thread between them is fate, one of the Book of Calamities’ hypotheses about suffering. “If I was created so, born to this fate,” Trachtenberg quotes Oedipus, “Who could deny the savagery of God?” Fate is not, in this reading, destiny, but a thicker, more complicated term for circumstance.
“This isn’t to say that fate eliminates guilt,” writes Trachtenberg. “But it makes possible a more nuanced vision of human responsibility, allowing one to see it as an intricate bitmap of freedom and unfreedom in which there are many shades of doubt and pity.” Which is to say, fate reveals a spectrum; Trachtenberg’s quasi-scientific method of inquiry has brought him around to a theory of relativity. Against it, he weighs justice. “What all justice does,” he writes, “however cruelly or inequitably, is to impose order on the pandemonium of acts.”
From order to chaos to fate to order: Trachtenberg’s story seems circular, but in fact it winds inward. The most moving story in the book uses Buddhism, martyrdom, and the trauma of Vietnam to reflect on the story of Kelly and Kate Daley, twins born with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, an extremely rare skin disease the effects of which are like “being burned every day of one’s life.” The affliction of the twins is unimaginable; Trachtenberg doesn’t really ask us to try. Instead, he wants us to understand their courage, as manifested most clearly in their wit – they’re bright, funny, honest women, people with whom any reader would want to be friends. The point of the story isn’t inspiration, however; the twins die horrible deaths at age 27. It’s witness. Another word for that is martyr; and yet another, Trachtenberg suggests, is bodhisattva, an “awakened being,” according to Buddhism, who sacrifices the reward of nirvana in order to stay with the rest of us as witness to our suffering. In one sense, that’s what the Daley twins desperately need: a witness. They wanted to be seen, both their suffering and their humanity recognized. In another sense, they were witnesses: they stayed in this world, living longer and fuller lives than almost anyone else with their disease. They did not die for the truth, they lived for it. And the truth was that of suffering. This is neither belief nor unbelief, it’s simply fact, the antidote to the inevitable shock of calamity.
Trachtenberg never makes suffering beautiful, but his prose is often lovely, as when he writes of the view from a suicide’s room, “the vast shining loneliness of the Hudson and the immense sky filled with light.” When he thinks we can bear it, the book is even funny. No gags, just an appreciation for the humor that attends suffering, as when Kelly Daley – forbidden from eating even toast, lest it scrape away her throat’s membrane – tells him she lusts for foie gras. “ ‘I’m a wistful hedonist. If I was healed, I’m afraid I’d be totally into the pleasures of the flesh.’ ”
The same may be true of Trachtenberg. He writes most vividly not of horror but of the delight he takes in the people he comes to care for, the twins, Linda, a painter in the final chapter. He sees not just their suffering, but also their brilliance, and it’s that reflected light that makes this darkest of studies itself a kind of witness, a profound book of heart stopping stories and even more powerful questions. This is a rare and invaluable kind of writing, almost scriptural in its scope and its openness to pain. I say “almost,” because The Book of Calamities is both less and more than the scripture from which it borrows much of its form. Trachtenberg offers no answers and doesn’t seem certain there are any. And yet that’s a blessing, a recognition that there is a limit to witness – which means that there may be a limit to suffering, too.