Here’s a hook that could only ever work in nonfiction: Author spends eight years writing a book about the death of her mother’s sister, who was allegedly murdered by a serial killer 35 years before. The book is months from publication when the author gets a call. A detective who's been working her aunt’s case for the past several years now has a DNA match and is on the verge of arresting a suspect.
This, roughly, is the story behind and the story of Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (2007), reissued this month by Graywolf Press. In 2004, Nelson finished Jane: A Murder, a book of (mainly) experimental poetry that explored the 1969 murder of her aunt, Jane Mixer. While no suspect had ever been convicted of Mixer's murder, it was widely believed that John Norman Collins, a serial killer who had only been officially convicted of the last of seven "Michigan Murders," was responsible.
Jane was not about Collins. But it was about an old grief, something that had happened to Nelson’s family before she was born, and the echoes and influence of that thing as it traveled down through her mother and her sister and her own life. The book was an attempt, Nelson says, to let Jane Mixer speak in her own voice, but the circumstances that made that voice unavailable except through reconstruction were long settled. There were no new developments to be reported.
Then in November 2004, Nelson and her mother were contacted by Detective Eric Schroeder, of the Michigan State Police. Collins was not responsible: A man named Gary Earl Leiterman, a retired nurse, had been linked to the crime by DNA evidence. The Red Parts is, at least superficially, about what came next: a news story, a trial, a renewed process of grief.
The Red Parts met critical, if limited, hosannas when it was first released, reviewed positively by the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Pop Matters, and others. It drew the attention of Annie Dillard, who called it "necessary, austere, and deeply brave." But in the intervening years, Nelson has only become more popular. Bluets (2009) was a commercial hit. The Art of Cruelty (2011) became one of those books about criticism that other critics, ordinarily a jealous set even within media, praised almost without reservation.
Last week The Argonauts (2015) won the National Book Critics Circle Award and, through sheer force of critical accolade (including here on Vox), secured Nelson’s place near the top of a new wave of American literary nonfiction writers, largely published by Graywolf Press, who have brought more interest and experiment to that form than any set of authors since the 1970s. The re-release of The Red Parts, Nelson's fifth book, allows a chance to reflect not only on the work itself, but on one of the early entries into that new territory of American writing.
The Red Parts eludes neat classification
I have been trying, for these past few weeks, to figure out what kind of book The Red Parts is, really.
Officially it is classified as a memoir and as true crime, but those aren’t quite right. These categories make sense up to a point: The Red Parts is a memoir inasmuch as it is nonfiction in the first person, and it is true crime inasmuch as it is at least notionally about a crime and a trial that truly happened. But the book does not sit comfortably in either. Perhaps they are the closest fit, if a fit must be made, but they’re more marketing than exposition.
True crime is as popular as it has ever been; memoir, and its attendant first-person content industry, more so than ever. But if those are the kinds of things you’re looking for, they aren’t what you’ll find in The Red Parts, not entirely. The crime is recounted, but not as plot. The trial happens, but its particulars are not exhaustive. Nelson’s life is subject to examination, but in episodes and lyrically; the gravity of the situation is thematic, not temporal. The Red Parts, by design, gives a sense of a life, but not the story of one.
Nelson herself resists strict classification, even though The Red Parts' original printing bore the phrase "a memoir" in its title. In her new foreword, she writes that the reissue has done more than save her book from going out of print. It has also brought "into focus the book I always hoped The Red Parts might one day become: a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence, to grief, thankfully untethered from the garish rubrics of ‘current events,' ‘true crime,' or even ‘memoir.’"
"As far as genre goes," she told me when we spoke via email about The Red Parts, "I’m not against it. I just saw this book as operating between a lot of genres. … Like a lot of writers, perhaps, it pleases me to imagine my books appearing in the world naked, without being larded up by blurbs or photos or genre-indicators or praise, so the reader can just start reading and answer for herself, 'wtf is this?'"
What The Red Parts is, I think, is a kind of commentary on these genres. It's not a memoir, but it is about the impulses that animate that form. It is not true crime, but is in conservation with true crime, high and low. It is also an opportunity to see the origins or early iterations of many of Nelson’s later habits: her preoccupation with violence; her remarkably unprecious treatment of sex; her haphazard (but often effective) jumps between tenses; her tendency to introduce quotations from other books, rendered in italics, into the middle of paragraphs as sentences borrowed for those paragraphs, by far the most visible stylistic feature of The Argonauts.
In conversation, Nelson tells me that one of the original titles for The Red Parts was "The End of the Story." The idea, she explains, was to "underscore the fact that narrativizing sometimes makes things worse for us," that "there are things to be felt or learned by dropping the storyline that we’ll never know when we stay busy spinning story after story about ourselves, about others, about the world."
Sometimes is perhaps the operative term here: The Red Parts is ambivalent about the possibilities of making sense through self-storytelling, deliberately uncertain about the virtue of memoir. At times, it makes a case for itself in a way that anticipates Leslie Jamison’s first justification for writing about her own pain ("Why am I talking about this so much? / I guess I’m talking about it because it happened"). At others, Nelson finds its limitations:
I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. It could — it all could — just disappear.
That is: The Red Parts is asking, Is there value in telling a story about what’s happened to us? It answers, Sometimes, but it is difficult to know when.
"This book was written in a pinched, pained mood about the idea that time heals, that writing is cathartic, while also performing the fact — maybe despite itself — that time does change things, that writing can make things different," Nelson told me. "But that change or difference is less linear than molten and looping. You have to submit to a process whose effects are unknowable before."
The effects are cathartic, sometimes. But not always.
When it is, catharsis doesn't come by embracing the storyline. It comes by annihilation. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could tell you this story because it happened, but impossibly, in some sense, because it did not happen to me.
The book, though it concerns a true crime story, isn't really a true crime story
Regarding true crime: Nelson’s resistance is far less measured. The Red Parts is skeptical of every trope of that genre, from the "cinematic, self-aggrandizing images ... of discovering some crucial piece of evidence that the 'professionals' had overlooked" to its unwillingness, except in rare cases, to reckon with much more than the most superficial questions about violence and human depravity.
Gary Leiterman's trial is covered by 48 Hours Mystery, a true crime variation of the TV newsmagazine 48 Hours. In a chapter that feels largely designed to humiliate an unnamed executive of that show, Nelson writes:
He says this episode will be about grief. About helping other people to mourn. He says that my family's involvement could really help other people in similar situations. All those viewers who thought they lost a family member to a famous serial killer, then are told 36 years later that DNA from the crime scene matches both that of a retired nurse and a man who was four years old at the time and grew up to murder his mother, I think.
With less graciousness than I'd hoped to display, I ask if there's a reason why stories about the bizarre, violent deaths of young, good-looking, middle- to upper-class white girls help people mourn better than other stories.
Nelson cites some of the genre's masterpieces too — The Executioner’s Song, in particular, comes up with that same CBS producer ("He lights up with an idea — he says he's going in to find the Mailer book I told him about, which he will read on the plane to California tomorrow morning. Good idea, I say, not mentioning that it's 1,056 pages") — but even here there is an implied rebuke.
Norman Mailer’s book is character study, an obsessive attempt to complicate and make sense of Utah killer Gary Gilmore, even romanticize him. The same can be said of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, perhaps the only true crime book more highly regarded than Mailer’s: Though he ultimately renounces the killer, Capote devotes half of his 200-some pages to an exercise in empathy with Perry Smith, the man who shot every member of the Clutter family.
It was only near the end of The Red Parts, when a chapter devoted to the trial itself finally happened, that I realized how little attention the book had paid to Leiterman himself. Only the bare facts of his biography are given — a few lines to the condition of his family and his life.
True crime, even when it rises out of sensationalism and sadism and pulp, is about the criminals. Even in its best incarnations, it feeds our desire for ghastly detail, and tries to make sense of why the worst crimes happen. It is about killing and the killers responsible. The Red Parts is not.
"I know next to nothing about Gary Leiterman," Nelson told me. "I never had any interest in finding out more than I knew. My interest lies elsewhere."
In unpacking Jane Mixer's murder, The Red Parts explores questions of memory and how we define ourselves
Among Nelson’s interests: Death. Grief. Sex. Her father. Her mother. Her sister. Buddhism. Storytelling. Psychoanalysis. Childhood.
These concerns are all related, of course, literally by the fact of Nelson’s presence, and by the marks and residue of trauma. "If you were to ask my mother a few years ago how Jane's murder affected the upbringing of her two daughters, she would have said that it did not," Nelson says. "The realization that she may not have been as 'in control' as she imagined ... startled her."
The proximate cause is a murder, but it might have been anything. What is important here is how we reject even immense events from our self-conception, and how time reveals and obscures our awareness of them. "At the end of this day, my grandfather announces that he has a 'gut feeling' about Leiterman," Nelson writes about a preliminary hearing in which her grandfather, Jane's father, has testified, "He mentions this 'gut feeling' several times, but never says exactly what it is."
A couple of paragraphs later: "I am also now remembering that when I tentatively, covertly interviewed my grandfather for Jane a few years back, he said that he had a 'gut feeling' about John Collins."
In her new forward, Nelson says, "One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment. At one point in The Red Parts, this intermingling is imagined as a place, a ‘dark crescent of land, where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up out of their graves, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.’"
Yet in The Red Parts, even imagined places and their meanings, even dreams (where the dark crescent of land is located) can permute over time, the elements available for collapse changing as Nelson writes and rewrites her self-conception.
I asked Nelson if there was some kind of contradiction here. "I would say that part of time passing includes the revisitation of past moments in the present," she said. "Indeed, the scientists keep telling us that memory is not static, but literally made anew each time. So I don’t see a real conflict here. It seems to me that given that the writing self is the remember self — even if I’m writing in the present tense about the court room, my writing body is actually sitting at a desk months later somewhere else — so the collapse in question is really none other than the scene of writing."
She is right about that, I think. And perhaps that, at bottom, is what kind of book The Red Parts is: a demonstration. It is a display of remembering — of seeing where time has changed meaning, of finding and losing and questioning the value of making stories of ourselves — made possible by an act of collapse. Pull these threads together, cut and paste episodes out of time and place — what happens? What is revealed? Is there resonance? Is it real, or only a byproduct of the aesthetic act itself? (If we are the ones who impose narrative in the first place, is there a difference?)
When I spoke to Nelson, I asked about the title. "The Red Parts" is the name of a chapter too, near the middle of the book. But it is the only one in the whole thing that does not mention Jane or her murder at all. "You know," Nelson said, "I never noticed that."
I don't go in much for the notion that we are most betrayed by our unconscious choices, but I will say this: The Red Parts is bullish about the possibility of finding sense in storytelling, but that sense is rarely about the same thing as the story is.