Rachel Z. Arndt’s Beyond Measure (Sarabande Books, 2018) is a watch of a book. Not literally, of course—it’s a collection of personal essays, and my copy was printed on paper, as books are—but its precision and economy of language are watch-like.
Beyond Measure contains few unnecessary sentences, and many of the necessary ones are declarative. In those sentences, there isn’t an overabundance of adjectives (or words for that matter). And, particularly striking for a collection of personal essays, navel-gazing is kept to a minimum. In Beyond Measure things happen. And it is through the telling of things happening that Arndt exposits, rather than expositing for exposition’s sake.
Here’s an example, from “Early”:
At the airport my dad always used to buy a newspaper or go to the bathroom right as the plane was about to board. My mom would get upset. I learned to imitate her, and then I learned to be upset on my own. But I didn’t learn to get as nervous at airports as she does. I’m comfortable with an hour buffer: enough time to wait in unexpectedly long lines and still get a snack but not so much time that my butt will go numb from sitting on hard terminal chairs. The one time I almost missed a flight, I got to the gate as people were boarding. I’d convinced the TSA agents to let me cut to the front of the security line only to have my bag searched by hand. They’d found the weathered brick, harvested from my parents’ backyard, that I intended to use as a bookend. We can’t let you bring this on, the man told me. I know you wouldn’t, but you could hit someone with it, he explained. Maybe I wanted to check it? No, I said, I do not want to check my brick—you can keep it. He placed it in a bin below the conveyor belt, and I dashed off to my gate, weaving around rolled suitcases and beeping electric carts, very on time if the place weren’t an airport, where an on-time passenger is considered late and an on-time flight is considered early.
Per its jacket copy book, Beyond Measure “challenges us to consider the simultaneous comfort and absurdity of our exhaustively quantified—yet never entirely quantifiable lives,” via essays about “metrics, essays, and rituals.” The book covers narcolepsy and sleep studies, road trips and boating, and judo and loneliness, among other things, all in relatively short-verging-on-laconic bursts of text.
Certainly, some of Beyond Measure’s essays take up more of its 175 pages than others, but none sprawl unnecessarily. Indeed, the average essay length is 8.4 pages (8 pages is the median); the longest is the book’s first essay, “Sleep,” at 15 pages, while the shortest essay is the penultimate, “Praise,” at 2 pages. Likewise, each essay’s title is a single word—“Sleep,” “Broadcast,” “Exchange,” “Submission”—thus making the book’s title longer than any of its parts.
That Arndt works as a science writer (and before that, a tech writer) is reflected in Beyond Measure’s tone. Science and health writing requires a certain degree of clinical—no pun intended—detachment, and Arndt’s voice is very detached throughout the book (once upon a time, I too was a science writer; game recognize game). Sometime Arndt’s detached/dry tone works very well, especially in the essays dealing with her narcolepsy and sleep issues, and sometimes it works less well, as in “Praise,” a 1.5-page, heartfelt but somewhat emotionless piece about an elderly woman with whom Arndt spends time (and clearly cares for). Tone aside, the essays in Beyond Measure are beautiful in an intricate, knotty way, as in how math is beautiful, or the interior of a mechanical watch; Arndt stacks her stripped-down sentences like bricks, and watching her essays grow bit by bit as one reads is frequently pleasurable.
For example, this section from “Commute.” In this essay, Arndt uses short, nearly daily, initially banal (sometimes aggressively so) descriptions of her commute (mostly the morning commute) to comment on loneliness and solipsism and, yes, the banality of commuting. The second section below, coming four pages into the essay, hit me like a punch when I first read it. Arndt’s ability to squeeze interest and meaning from the everyday is significant.
I dreamed last night about catching a bedbug in a Ziplock bag that wouldn’t seal. I woke in a sweat, and then it was time to take a shower and consider cutting the security tag out of my new shirt, time to leave early, avoiding the regulars on the platform: the man with the big nose, big neck, the triceps horseshoed to perfection. Or the woman with the khaki pants and backpack I worked to a mist glare speckling suburbia.
I can’t stop looking at their rings. They have single diamonds and three diamonds, they are gold and silver on women and titanium on men. I try to guess how old the wearers are and how far behind I am. I have no one around to witness my bad habits; I want someone there when I’m plucking my eyebrows.
Power cut “due to an unauthorized person on the tracks at Sheridan.” Not upset about being late, I returned to my book about empathy. Perhaps we can’t empathize with someone awful, the author writes, because we’re trying to protect ourselves from what’s familiar in him, what we might share, that awfulness. The train moved on. As we streamed by Sheridan I saw orange-vested CTA people with their hands on the shoulders of a man bent over, bowed towards the wooden platform. He tried to kill himself, I thought, making him unauthorized, though the word “unauthorized” felt unnecessarily formal. I didn’t even consider empathizing; I knew only that I would be late, and I was glad for it
A man replaced his zipper pull with a large paper clip. Why I don’t keep my train card in the outside pocket of my wallet I don’t know.
A consultant dropped the inside of his Wall Street Journal, then let go of the whole thing. He swung with the train, umbrella slipping from under his briefcase handle, where it was unsuccessfully wedged. A woman picked it up and handed it to him. He wore, like many midtwenties corporate men, brown shoes and blue pants; he looked attractive but in an unattainable way. By the end of the trip, I wanted to lock eyes with him.
As assured as Beyond Measure often is, it is a first book and at times it feels like it (I write this having published a very first booky first book); not every essay succeeds and a few fall flat. An example of a less-than-successful piece is “Leaving,” which is about the psychology of leaving, but, in an example of verisimilitude working against itself, mostly consists of descriptions of bros drinking Coors Light on a drunken, ramshackle party bus, and as a result comes across (at least in the bro sections) as juvenile and thin.
But Beyond Measure is also a very promising and interesting first book. The essays that bookend Beyond Measure, “Sleep” and “Briefly” are both excellent (deciding to bracket the book with essays about going to sleep (“Sleep”) and waking up (“Briefly”) is cute). Indeed, the sleep-specific essays in Beyond Measure are generally the book’s best. While sleep is indeed a recurring motif, I couldn’t help but wonder if Beyond Measure might have been more effective it has been more explicitly arranged around sleep.
And while Beyond Measure may have its ups and downs, it’s mostly ups. Once, when reading Beyond Measure on the train, I missed my stop, so engrossed was I in the book. When I got off the train, in the dark and rain and miles south of my normal stop, I momentarily had no idea where I was and had to reorient myself with my phone’s map, like a rube. And isn’t that what all writers want, for readers to be so engrossed in their work that readers leave their lives, at least for a little while, letting the writing take over entirely?
About the title: the finished copy of Beyond Measure that Sarabande sent me came with a Beyond Measure-branded ruler (bookmark?). It was adorable. To wit:
Kevin O’Rourke recently published his first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle with Tinderbox Editions.