Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays, comprised of an earlier short run publication (Orphans) and previously uncollected work. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit.
It’s also profoundly lyrical, in a precise yet playful way. I kept a list of new words I looked up while reading – the first five were deracinated, soporific, kiped, senescent, and prolepsis. There were at least thirty more. Each word requiring definition was unmatchable; no other word would have done in its place.
D’Ambrosio’s lexical knowledge hints at the thematic breadth of his essays, which draw on biblical, anthropological, literary, mythological, psychoanalytic, botanical and zoological contexts. His love of language quickly won my loyalty, and my experience of his work is articulated in the opening essay, which describes ‘living for weeks at a time within the sentences of a single writer, excluding other authors, other kinds of reading.’ I didn’t want these essays to stop.
D’Ambrosio’s considerations of well-known topics, from high-profile court cases to Salinger’s ouvre, are interesting – but they are not the most interesting elements of the collection. The familiar may be an easy selling point, a ready branch for the publisher and marketers to hang their lanterns on, but it is far from everything. This is not to say that the essays on familiar things are less enjoyable – rather, D’Ambrosio’s presence in his own writing is an essential part of what makes it so entertaining.
‘Sobs and Salinger’ is a unique reading of Salinger’s work, tinted by D’Ambrosio’s knowledge of the psychoanalysis of suicide and large families. Salinger’s work here becomes something entirely different to the coming-of-age, voice-of-a-generation, aren’t-recluses-intriguing stuff we’re accustomed to reading in any appraisal of Salinger’s life and work. This essay and those that accompany it are also deeply personal, their themes informed by one brother’s suicide, another’s failed attempt at the same, and the slow demise of D’Ambrosio’s father.
Frustrated by the silence left in the wake of his brother’s death, D’Ambrosio’s mission as a writer seems connected to speaking the unspeakable – perhaps this is where the love of language becomes about much more than precision. He manages to eke out stories despite ‘an odd scattering of fragments and then a vast surrounding silence’. In ‘This is Living’ he’s ‘chasing after [his] father’, reliving the stories that have been handed down to him. In ‘Documents’, collected letters from family members become source material, unable to answer back for all their dead characters, as D’Ambrosio re-reads artefacts, re-constructs meaning, and guesses at intention.
The title essay, ‘Loitering’, is the ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ of the collection. D’Ambrosio attends a crime scene in pursuit of ‘a bona fide journalistic story, full of who, what, where, when.’ Though it appears early in the collection, we already understand that this is not the kind of writing D’Ambrosio customarily does. Instead, the essay examines his reaction, and that of others in attendance at the scene.
The ‘loitering’ throughout the collection as a whole isn’t sinister. It’s about a return to initial purpose – though the sprawling associations sometimes make you question, mid-way through an essay, whether there is a purpose. It’s less like loitering, then, and more like a dérive. D’Ambrosio doesn’t know where we’re going either – though, of course, he must. The essays always return to a place of sense – not clean, tidy, ‘here-is-the-meaning’ sense, but a cumulative, subtle and open resting place. Rather than finishing when each essay ‘ends’, the reader steps into the life of it for a little while, and though we must leave it, the essay will continue.
The strangeness of people is acutely felt – turns of phrase, obsessions, and preoccupations are examined in minute detail. It’s hard to tell whether D’Ambrosio is aware of his keen sensitivity to reflections and juxtapositions of himself in others. In ‘One More Paradise’, he repeatedly returns to the language used by larger-than-life character Dave Santos in reference to his idyllic ecologically-friendly ‘Biosquat’. ‘So often,’ writes D’Ambrosio, Santos ‘leaves sense for sound … His real project seems to be about the liberation of language’. In a way, this is D’Ambrosio’s project, too – cutting language loose. Unlike Santos, D’Ambrosio’s liberation is about words’ weight, and his precise use of words throughout these essays suggests that perhaps it is possible to say exactly what you mean.
When the strangeness of people gets too much – when life drifts too far from its anchor – D’Ambrosio turns to his surrounds. In ‘Orphans’, D’Ambrosio reads the walls, floors and hard surfaces of an orphanage. In ‘American Newness’, it’s the gloss of prefab houses. In ‘Hell House’ it’s the failure of physical space to evoke genuine fear, and in ‘Whaling out West’ it’s an uncomfortable wilderness.
Eventually, though, it all returns to the man himself. In the context of these essays, this seems the only possible ending. D’Ambrosio is unafraid to paint his flaws: ‘[I’m] not properly credentialed and I’m feeling a little timid because, with my falling-down pants, my soaking wet waxed-cotton coat, and my sore, swollen, hideous, raw red fingers, I don’t look nearly so crisp and ready to report news as these people, and in fact, the way I look, I might be an escapee from the other side, I might just be a piece of news myself’. He’s keenly aware of the process of writing, lifting back the veil to reveal the scaffolding of the work. In ‘Whaling out West’, D’Ambrosio reveals the ‘canker of self-consciousness’ involved in writing, where ‘like a lot of writers I not only do a thing, I see myself doing it too – it’s almost like not being alone’. This overstated honesty renders moments of vulnerability as cavernous, opening them far wider than they would otherwise extend.
D’Ambrosio writes of his childhood self, ‘I was mad for relevance, connection, some hint that I was not alone.’ In Loitering, he well and truly finds this connection. D’Ambrosio stands at the centre of the essay, taking Montaigne’s dictum of Que sais-je? (’What do I know?’) and internalising it, as all great essayists do. The essays go on to ask the still-more essential question, ‘How do I know this?’. The answer provided by D’Ambrosio, again and again, is: ‘Because I have lived the life I have lived.’ They skirt around the edges of the wide world beyond D’Ambrosio, but ultimately return to the writer who exists at the centre of the essay.