About a third of the way into his haunting, elegant memoir, The Beautiful Unseen, author Kyle Boelte makes something of a confession: “I’m not sure chasing fog makes any sense. What do I hope to accomplish? Besides, I’ve tried chasing after it, and chasing doesn’t seem to work.” The memoir is among the most confessional forms of writing, and so the lines don’t come as a surprise so much as a confirmation of the impossible task Boelte has undertaken for himself. Confession, of course, takes courage, and as a writer Boelte has courage in spades, which he displays as he attempts to track two of the most ephemeral natural phenomena: human memory and fog.
First, the memory. When he was 13 years old, Kyle’s older brother, 16-year-old Kris, hung himself with a shower curtain in the basement of their family’s suburban Denver home. Kris left no note, and to this day Kyle and his parents are uncertain what, exactly, drove Kris to kill himself. Perhaps it had something to do with the alienation he felt as an adopted child. Maybe it was connected to his troubles at school, where Kris had recently been busted for selling LSD to his classmates. Or maybe it was just the usual pain and confusion of adolescence, taken to an awful extreme.
Now a grown man living in fog-shrouded San Francisco, Kyle is haunted by the incomprehensibility of his brother’s self-destruction. But even more than that, Boelte is troubled by how much he has forgotten about the brother he loved and looked up to. What did Kris’s voice sound like? Were there clues about Kris’s suicide plans that Kyle somehow missed? What did Kyle feel in the months and years after the death? He doesn’t know, because he cannot remember. Trying to recover the memories of his own lost adolescence becomes an obsession of sorts. “I write down a few sentences before I forget whatever it is I just remembered,” Boelte writes and then, without missing a beat, “Trying to remember is often a good way not to remember.”
Here’s where the fog rolls in. As he picks over the history of his brother’s suicide, Boelte develops another obsession: trying to understand the workings of Northern California’s famous coastal fog. He writes: “I want to be enveloped by this fog. I want to see the world obscured and then see it come back into view.” Boelte makes one pilgrimage after another into the fog, to San Francisco’s gray Ocean Beach, and the wind-swept railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the sunless reaches of Point Reyes National Seashore. He studies up on meteorology. “I have a pile of fog papers in one corner of the house. A pile of Kris’s papers in another.”
There is a long tradition of writers seeking solace in wild nature. Think of Terry Tempest Williams’s modern classic Refuge, in which the author finds an equanimity with pain and loss among the bird colonies of the Great Salt Lake, or British writer Helen Macdonald’s current bestseller, H Is for Hawk, about training a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death. But Boelte isn’t looking for fog to provide comfort or consolation. Rather, in fog he finds a companion, a phenomenon that, in all of its elusiveness, reflects the vagaries of remembrance.
The fog rolls in, blankets the world in gray. Just like our memoires, the fog affects everything, changes nothing. “What is seeing?” Boelte wonders, then dives into the fog once more, anguished by his inability to forget Kris’s suicide, upset by how little he remembers.
Boelte is a careful stylist, and the rhythms of his writing are an echo of fog itself. His sentences are short and his chapters are, too, no more than a few pages, snapshots and vignettes. The prose is flickering and retreating – fog burning off at midday. Eventually, as it becomes apparent that Boelte has struggled with depression for years (“through it all I carry sadness with me”), the fog takes on yet another layer of meaning. William Styron called depression “darkness visible.” For Boelte, depression is fog, the world a monotone of grays.
The Beautiful Unseen is an excavation of the heart and, as Boelte well knows, “There is no field guide for such matters.” Fog and memory will always be fleeting, impossible to grasp and hold onto. Despite this, Boelte achieves a real accomplishment: He’s managed to write a book about forgetting that is, in itself, unforgettable.
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