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Notes from a noticer: ‘The Details’

By Jack Callil
Tegan Bennett Daylight’s delicate and arresting essay collection draws attention to attention itself

In her 1982 essay “Total Eclipse”, Annie Dillard describes witnessing the sun being slowly shaved away in a darkening sky. The experience is curious at first but quickly becomes unearthly, a disorienting sensation of time and place being upended. To convey this transcendence, Dillard focuses on the detail:

The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte … The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. 

Like Dillard, Tegan Bennett Daylight understands the significance of the “sensory detail” of narrative. Her collection of essays, The Details: On Love, Death and Reading (Simon & Schuster), is an homage to this nourishing gristle of literature and life. These essays portray a life examined through books, a familiar conceit – in the last year alone we have had Debra Adelaide’s The Innocent Reader, Jane Sullivan’s Storytime and Michael Wilding’s Wild About Books. But The Details stands apart, distinguished by its vulnerability, candour and probing insight into the fragmentary underpinnings of lived experience.

Daylight’s preoccupation with language begins with her mother, Deborah, a “serious noticer” with a “magpie attention” who has always harboured a love of reading. “Detail I” explores how, whenever a young Daylight would decry boredom, her mother would swiftly festoon her with the books that she herself adored. It was “a form of communication”, Daylight says, but also a way for a mother to show her daughter how to fill her own “storehouse of detail”, how to use words to enrich experience. Headlights on a dark night were not mere passing lights but Hart Crane’s “immaculate sigh of stars”, while Deborah’s Hamlet-inspired response to any question of veracity was often: “’Tis true: ’tis true ’tis pity, / And pity ’tis, ’tis true”.

Ignited by her readerly mother, Daylight engages in “lifelong conversation” with myriad authors. Throughout The Details, she muses on writers such as Helen Garner, S.J. Perelman, Brian Dillon and George Saunders – these “companions as much as teachers” – and considers the impact of their work upon her. The strongest essay is on Garner – whom Daylight feels is as much a parent “as [her] own mother” – with it deftly articulating how enchanted one can become under a writer’s spell. The timbre of Garner’s prose makes Daylight feel “somehow present, alert to the shifts in light or weather”, and a passage from The Children’s Bach takes her back to the “light-filled hall” where her baby plays on the carpet. Here, Daylight finds herself in Garner, evoking Rudine Sims Bishop’s description of books as not only windows onto worlds “real or imagined”, but also mirrors reflecting experience, in which “we can see our lives”.

Yet while Daylight draws attention to these vivid presences in literature, she is equally attuned to its absences. Her standout essay “Vagina” offers a visceral account of Daylight’s two childbirths and the physical aftermath of her episiotomy: the cutting of her vagina “down towards the anus to make a wider opening for the baby”. The essay confronts what Daylight perceives as the silence or obfuscation surrounding experiences of childbirth, and the historical resistance of canonical literature to “know women’s lives – to know their bodies, and not just words like ‘suffering’ or ‘pain’”. Echoing Adrienne Rich’s sentiment of the “lived experience, particularity” of writing not the body but my body, Daylight offers intimate details so often elided: vaginal disfigurement, prolapse, the forceps (“servers for a terrible salad”) inserted inside her to retrieve her child. The resulting essay is unapologetic in its confrontation of frenetic embodied experience, and its flooding of silence with the noise of the body. “The detail is missing, and detail is all there is.”

The detail is all that remains of a life after death, too. Daylight shows how moments that seemed innocuous at the time can burrow their way into memory and take root. In “Detail II”, which chronicles Deborah’s protracted death to lung disease, Daylight tenderly recounts the last days of her mother’s life in their family home. This essay, more than any other, poignantly evinces the sentiment of the book. Daylight recalls small things: Deborah’s doctor being “so alive to another human being”; the film Withnail and I playing in the living room; her mother’s puckered lips like the “rubber seal of an old pickling jar”. And when Deborah does die, Daylight becomes “the carrier of [her] mother’s detail”, and reflects that whenever she reads she is still in conversation with her. “All that detail sings in the air, living still.”

The balance of delicate and arresting essays renders The Details moving and absorbing for the most part, but the book is slightly undercut by some of its weaker sections. “Inventing the Teenager”, for example, explores the amorphous idea of the teenager in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, while also discussing her English students’ lacklustre engagement with literature. Frustratingly to Daylight, they prefer The Hunger Games to Salinger, and she admits to a “dramatic clutching of the heart” whenever her students find Holden Caulfield a bit annoying. Sacrilege! It’s one of a few moments where the writing seems to fizzle. Instead of exploring the generational disconnect, or the outmoded navel-gazing of white, affluent protagonists, the essay evokes a bit of generational fist-shaking. It feels at best like an opportunity missed, and at worst out of touch.

Ultimately, though, The Details is an immersive and thought-provoking read, ideal for any bibliophile. Daylight draws attention to attention itself, poignantly showing how detail is the mutual currency of life and literature, a means of tethering ourselves to the world. As we read, we sharpen our tools, heighten our capacity to see ourselves and to understand our own at-times overwhelming complexity. As Daylight writes, quoting James Wood, “To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself.”

Jack Callil

Jack Callil is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. He is currently digital editor of Australian Book Review and proofreader of Meanjin. 

@jackcallil

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