- Review by Molly Odintz
Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets and The Argonauts, is one of the most original voices writing today, and one whose work provides us with a crucial perspective on the intersection of modern thought and experience. Maggie Nelson’s latest book, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, is difficult to define – part true crime, part memoir, part critical analysis, and part courtroom drama, this book serves as a multidimensional platform for Maggie Nelson to recount the fallout from her aunt’s murder in 1969, the trial of her murderer decades later, and society’s obsession with the deaths of young, attractive white women.
The Red Parts is not Nelson’s first work to explore her aunt’s story. In 2004, Nelson had already finished a book of poetry called Jane: A Murder, exploring her aunt’s life, death, and unsolved murder, when her aunt’s case was reopened with the addition of new DNA evidence. Police had previously thought Jane to be a victim of a serial killer, yet had never conclusively proven this, and new DNA evidence linked Jane’s murder to an entirely different suspect. The Red Parts follows Maggie Nelson and her mother through the trial, as they have a chance to come to terms with the past, and finally learn the full story behind Jane’s murder.
Maggie Nelson destroys the boundaries between personal and political, fact and memory, creation and critique, ivory tower and public forum, and for this book, dead and alive.
Maggie Nelson destroys the boundaries between personal and political, fact and memory, creation and critique, ivory tower and public forum, and for this book, dead and alive. Like her previous works, the structure of The Red Parts is loose, and certainly non-traditional, yet consistent in its themes and parallels. Nelson alternates between painful, personal details of her own life and her family, scenes from the courtroom, and hard-hitting analysis of our culture’s obsession with violence. She unpacks every personal experience into a series of revelations about the world at large. She brilliantly parallels her sister’s teenage years with her aunt’s youthful rebellion, and contrasts her mother’s disillusionment with her life as a housewife with Maggie Nelson’s own growing cynicism.
While reminiscing about a class on existentialism (which her father’s early death and her aunt’s murder spurred her to take), Nelson hones in on the influence of gender in depictions of violence. In one of the book’s most haunting passages, Nelson writes: “One of the films we watched in this class was Hitchock’s Vertigo, and I remember feeling disconcerted by the way Kim Novak’s character seems stranded between ghost and flesh, whereas Jimmy Stewart’s seems the “real,” incarnate. I wanted to ask my professor afterward whether women were somehow always already dead, or, conversely, had somehow not yet begun to exist, but I could not find a way to formulate this question without sounding, or without feeling, more or less insane.”
Dead, beautiful women have a place and purpose in public imagination. Alive,they age, think, and speak. Dead, they remain beautiful and voiceless, “stranded between ghost and flesh,” re-purposed as public objects of fascination, a place to redirect our own miseries, even as they continue to inspire tremendous private grief.
The Red Parts, as I understand the title, means the messy bits, the most painful parts of our memory, and the irrevocable and spiraling consequences of our actions. When “the red parts” are our own memories, they cause us pain when we silence them, and can help us cope when set free. When “the red parts” are not our own, we are more likely to sensationalize or exploit them, rather than use them to heal. Nelson encapsulates the dichotomy between empathy and exploitation in her description of a true crime writer testifying at the trial; he weeps as he recounts the death of a 12-year-old girl at the hands of a serial killer, while unconsciously mimicking the killer’s hand gestures, showing the audience how the crime was done.
When others ask why I read such depressing books, I talk of responsibility and empathy, but I know, deep down, that I am drawn to these stories because of my own need for catharsis. By reading about the suffering of others, I purge myself of my own. I embrace my own misery, because a story has reinterpreted my pain and transformed it into exquisite literary sensations. I feel safe, because the pain on the page is not mine.
By reading stories of murder, serial killers, and crime sprees, we can all feel safe, warm, and lucky, because the pain on the page is not ours, and our pain will always be less than the suffering characters in front of us. We can feel our own sorrows slammed into someone else’s narrative, resonating keenly with our own memories. We can feel eternally grateful that someone else, not us, was able to write this thing down, so that we can read their stories and understand our own.
We can give thanks, too, for this template of memory placed on a page, showing us all how to mourn with dignity, and how to continue the story of a life unfairly cut off. Maggie Nelson understands all this and more, and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial could function as a primer for how to write critically about violence and the depiction of violence.
You can find copies of The Red Parts on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.