Obsessive Empathetic-Somatic Syndrome and You (Part III)
On this week’s Two Month Review blog post, we’re exploring Part III: “The Yellow House” from Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. As was unanimous from the conversation between Chad, Brian, and Nick last week, this is where the magic of the book and the skill of Gospodinov as a writer truly start to shine. And I couldn’t agree more. The whimsy, darkness, and craftsmanship of this section confirms my suspicion that Gospodinov has been preparing us for these depths through the earlier sections. Now that we’re familiar with the physics of his world—the embedding, the mythic undertones, the complex Bulgarian landscape—he can drag us further into the ephemera that matter.
The Craft of Gospodinov
Through “The Yellow House” we’re looking at—well—everything. Each of the short stories within provide flashes at the truth that Gospodinov is writing to unpack. And by the time I reached the end of this section, I felt fully immersed. When the chapter finished, I automatically ventured further as I felt fully prepared by Gospodinov to do so. I mean it when I say that this section left me blank, breathless. The book has done much to cement it’s sense of playfulness and wonder through its unconventional structure and mythic, pseudo-scientific content, and the rules of how this world works. But through this part we now see Gospodinov shine for his prose and its ability to draw a reader into its self-contained world.
The Personal Mythic
It is with this vigorous attention to prose that, throughout “The Yellow House,” Gospodinov returns to what he established in previous sections, such as the powerful orbit of the minotaur, and its relationship to abandonment and his life in Bulgaria. The opening piece is easily one of the strongest. At its most basic, it’s a short work of mystery, with a little bit of Gothic spice here and there with the otherworldly properties and suspense. The second paragraph reads like it could have been pulled from an early American horror serial:
One evening, passing by there, I heard a chilling howl. There was something excessive and inhuman in that howling or bellowing, something from the mazes of the night Ooooooooohhh . . . That endless Oooohh dug tunnels in the silence of the early November evening.
And there we are, drawn in to this strange space where nothing is truly certain, and it’s here that we find our protagonist, the young Gospodinov. This story continues as such, with him traversing the dark countryside outside of this deserted insane asylum, attempting to speculate what—or who— is howling—or possibly mooing—from its depths, and, later, trying to figure out what his father was doing there. This arc continues in “My Brother, the Minotaur,” where the nature of the mystery turns from halls of the asylum with their peeling paint to the halls of his own mind, as he attempts to deduce what—or who—was calling out to him from the center of that labyrinth. And his imagination runs wild. He first speculates that:
That inhuman howl really was inhuman, and it wasn’t Ooooh, but Moooo. And it came from a half-man, half-bull locked up in there. (I’d already seen one such boy in my grandfather’s hidden memory.) [. . .]
And from here he’s left, haunted about his fate and his relationship to the Minotaur (Asterius, is that you?), as he suspects that he and the minotaur are brothers through numerous imaginative acrobatics.
In this section we even return to embedding. This time, we have a diagnosis for this bizarre ability: pathological empathy or obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome (which, as far as we can tell author Gospodinov has created for this piece specifically). This condition is marked, neurologically, by some kind of hyperactivity in the same regions of the brain that allow for empathy, but, for people like Georgi, it becomes too strong of a feeling and places the brain in a trance-like state while the victim fully constructs, or possibly invades, the memory or imagination of another.
There’s even a kind of somatic confirmation of this, which is seen following an MRI:
The picture hadn’t come out. Maybe it was due to the machine, it was old, after all. Actually, this was the first time something like this had happened to them, absolutely nothing could be seen, just a dark-black plate. This didn’t come as a surprise to me. I know nothing can be seen, because inside is darkness, an unilluminable, centuries-deep darkness. My skull is a cave. I didn’t tell them that, of course.
The Myth of the Gospodinovs
We’re also met with numerous short and sweet stories about our young narrator and his family where the mythic is drawn upon to contextualize the experiences of him and his family. In “Nippers,” the theme of abandonment is intersected once again by Greek myths, while in “Mother Bean” the children are told to avoid playing in the gardens or the mothers of vegetables will go after them. It’s here that a young Georgi beautifully remarks, “Everything had a mother, only we didn’t. We had grandmothers.”
A Brief and Wondrous History of Bulgaria
A bulk of “The Yellow House” has Gospodinov recounting life in Communist Bulgaria. We’re given lectures on Bulgaria through sections like “A Private History of the 1980s,” and “An Official History of the 1980s,” which highlight Georgi’s own role in the deaths of numerous Soviet Union leaders (and the relationship of that to his love life). Amongst these are series of catalogs, such as the “Catalog of Collections,” which details Gospodinov’s obsession with collected abandoned things, to the two-part “The Sexual Questions” and “From a Catalog Of Important Erotic Scenes,” which highlight the humor that pervades Gospodinov’s storytelling—no matter how grim the discussion.
All We Are is Dust in the Wind
The section I wanted to focus on the most was “The Metaphysics of Dust,” nestled in the first third of “The Yellow House.” It describes in full beautiful sensory detail—almost spiritually so—a return to a nostalgic place. The piece opens:
I’ve fallen asleep on the windowsill. I wake up from the sun shining through the dirty glass, a warm afternoon sun. Still in that no man’s land between sleep and afternoon, before I return to myself, I sense that soaring and lightness, the whole weightlessness of a child’s body. Waking up, I age within seconds. Crippling pain seizes my lower back, my leg is stiff. The light in early September, the first fallen leaves outside, the worry that someone may have passed by on the street and seen me.
We’re met with lush descriptions that bounce between the senses and accomplish a lot—with very little—to create a sense of immersion. While we’re beautifully drawn into this scene, Gospodinov starts to layer this prosodic depth with some of the ‘physics’ that’s he’s guided us to throughout the piece—in this case the relationship between light and time that he introduced in the previous section, “Against an Abandonment: The Case of M.” He’s already performing routines that we’re familiar with, such as the warping of perception, but as he’s worked so hard for us to understanding how his world works he’s now able to fully engage with more artistic prose. He continues:
I climb down from the window carefully, unfolding my body, instead of simply jumping down. The room, lit up by the autumn sun, has come alive. One ray passes right through the massive glass ashtray on the table, breaking the light down into its constituent colors. Even the long-dead, mummified fly next to it looks exquisite and sparkles like a forgotten earring [. . .] The Brownian motion of the dust specks in the ray of light . . . The first mundane proof of atomism and quantum physics, we are made of specks of dust. And perhaps the whole room, the afternoon and my very self, with my awkward three-dimensionality are being merely projected [. . .]
Just as we were first drawn to his perspective, which seems to be a timeless narrator pulled between his youth and age and he’s filled with both whimsy and stiff joints at the same time, we’re now being dispersed into the universe with the dust and drifts throughout the room and the light that pours in through the windows. And as we’re already familiar with, Gospodinov returns to his own whimsical, emotional physics with more feeling—more depth. The piece moves into a collection of moments, something we see in different forms throughout “The Yellow House,” and the manner in which these moments are built further obstructs our ability to sense time at this moment—as readers—as we almost see the narrator stretch himself across space and time within the confines of this room:
I recalled the darkness, the scent of Pine-Sol, the whirring of the machine. Everything in the movie theater was made from that darkness and a single beam of light. The headless horseman arrived along the beam, as did the great Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon; horses and Indians, whooping Sioux tribes, geometrical Roman legions, and ragged Gypsy caravans headed for the heavens kicked up dust along it, Lollobrigida and Loren came down that beam, along with Bardot, Alain Delon and his eternal rival Belmondo [. . .] I would turn my back on the screen and peer into the beam coming from the little window at the back of the theater. It swarmed with chaotically dancing particles. [. . .] I watched the specks of dust and tried to guess which would turn into lips, an eye, a horse’s hoof or Lollobrigida’s breasts, which flashed by for an instant in one scene . . .
Gospodinov pulls the readers across a span of ephemera, as he warned us through his epigraphy, and while the prose here is as beautiful as the rest of the section, he has also given us an outline of what we are to expect throughout the section, right down to the feelings, actors, and archetypes. And, mystically, he tells us that there’s more, more that he can’t tell us directly, through the use of ellipses. We can speculate here, as these could be the lapses in his own memory, or a daring moment where the narrator can’t tell us something that is pulled back to his memory of the movie theatre. While I’m focusing on these opening paragraphs, clumsily pulling the enter short here, I could easily draw from any moment of this short piece, and such a homogeneity of wonder throughout this section attests to Gospodinov’s clear vision that I first wrote two in the introductory post weeks ago.
I return to some of the sentiments that the gentlemen shared during the podcast last week. In “The Yellow House” Gospodinov shows us what he was capable of. During one of the previous discussions, one participant—I believe Brian—noted that there wasn’t necessarily something pulling them through the piece. They were reading it, they were enjoying it, but—to paraphrase—the magic of the piece wasn’t sustaining the reading experience.
And I would agree with that commentary. While the work was interesting, and challenging, it felt like Gospodinov might not have been leading us anywhere concrete. There were so many disparate sections, with loose narration, followed by the formal shifting in Part II, and these changes forced me, as a reader, into anywhere from discomfort—anxiety at worst—to a disinterest towards what would come next. But what arrived through Part III was a strong return to what we know. Instead of shifting expectations once more with formal manipulation, Gospodinov was able strengthen the themes of the previous sections with a stunning attention to prose. And, in retrospect, the structure of the previous sections was needed to draw a reader to enough of a familiarity with the work as to give Gospodinov free reign to give us his best.