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Isadora by Amelia Gray

In “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin examines the legacy of the oral storytelling tradition and its print descendent, the novel. “The novel is significant,” he writes, “not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate.” In Benjamin’s reckoning, the form is governed by the ultimate closure of death, a closure withheld from our own lives. “What draws the reader to the novel,” he continues, “is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” As readers, we attend to the scene of death because we seek the heat of life.

The same can be said of Isadora, Amelia Gray’s remarkable new novel. It explores the life of the revolutionary dancer and American expat Isadora Duncan after the deaths of her two young children. The incident begins when a hired car carrying the children and their nanny breaks down on a bridge. The driver cranks the engine, though he’s forgotten to engage the brake. This ordinary scene turns nightmarish when the children and their nanny, trapped in the back seat, plunge to the bottom of the Seine. “The three inside could be heard screaming pitifully,” writes Gray, “before they went silent.” This tomb-like image of modernity, the last frightening moment before death, appears countless times throughout the novel and provokes a sense of reverse rubbernecking in the reader. You don’t have to turn your head to catch the scene of the accident; it happens on the page again and again, rendered with savage wit and surgical precision.

As a recursive meditation on grief, Gray’s prose interrogates the very idea of the morbid. Its fearless gaze is so transfixed by death that the reader forgets to flinch, fascinated and paralyzed in turns by the slow unraveling of Duncan’s life and the moments of ecstatic beauty that puncture the veil of her grief. If Gray’s fiction were cinema, it would be a gruesome cinema without cuts or ellipses, refusing to comfort the squeamish. It brings to mind the famous sequence from Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, in which a disembodied hand slices a woman’s eye with a razor. Buñuel’s surreal critique of the shared relationship between the watcher and the watched feels inextricably linked to the moment of Isadora. A visionary arrives at the forefront of the prewar European avant-garde. We become surveyors of her pain.

The narrative, moreover, is as interested in Duncan’s mourning as it is in the cultural and historical circumstances that joined the human being to the mechanical and raised the specter of instant, machine-ordained catastrophe. Anyone who’s experienced an unsettling sense of relief after learning a car accident victim died on impact is situated squarely within the vector of this novel’s reach. Once we entrust our lives to machines, we accept that human consciousness is built with a switch that may be flipped off without a moment’s notice.

And although it hits surrealist notes, this multi-perspectival, time-fractured journey through the interiority of the twentieth-century woman is indebted to the modernism of Virginia Woolf. Duncan’s artistic independence recalls the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, who discovers the artist’s license—responsibility, even—to manipulate the physical world beyond realism for the sake of emotional truth. But like Briscoe’s art, which Woolf yokes to a traumatic epistemological failure when Mr. Ramsay refuses to bring his son to see the lighthouse, Duncan’s art comes crashing against the banalities of the everyday. In place of the lighthouse, Gray gives us Paris Singer, heir of a sewing machine fortune and the father of Duncan’s dead son. He navigates loss the way an accountant navigates his ledger, choosing to calculate the hourly cost of a secretary hired to organize sympathy cards instead of mourning his child. By contrast, Gray relays Duncan’s suffering through acrobatic passages:

The keening scream spread swiftly from my body to the walls and floor to make a residence of sound, echoed through my empty core, my ribs a spider’s web strung ragged across my spine, a sagging cradle for the mess of my broken heart.

The result is a work of many registers and a biting condemnation of modernity that drifts into memory, fantasy, despair, desire, and boredom in equal measures.

Some twenty pages before the novel’s finale, Duncan declares in a lecture that “life is a beast bucking mad to crush its cargo, and the journey’s only purpose is the beauty caught in glimpses along the way.” This conception of life, though only marginally more expansive than something in a medieval work, manages to serve as a gross understatement of the artist’s life and a fitting thesis for Gray’s novel. Its compression of human totality into fragile commodity—a payload strapped to the back of a wild animal and awaiting destruction—also echoes the teleological construct of death in Benjamin’s essay. The meaning of a life, “the journey’s only purpose,” in Duncan’s words, can be gleaned only with reference to the closure of death, a closure we can never fully know ourselves.

Benjamin notes elsewhere in “The Storyteller” that death was once a public affair, though now, because of hospitals and modern medicine, we die in private. In Benjamin’s eyes, this development is entangled with the rise of print technology and private readerships. Likewise, the circumstances that make Duncan’s existence so tragic help us to see what was well-concealed by the towering and sunless legacy of the Industrial Revolution during her lifetime. By 1913, when Isadora Duncan’s children sink to the bottom of the Seine, the public nature of their deaths and their mother’s suffering makes them the subjects of tabloid fodder more than anything else. Just as machines privatized storytelling and dying, and just as they helped to move individuals and goods alike through space at high speeds, so too did they make humans and art look a little more like the gimcrack of expendable, capitalist objects.

Isadora ends with a death, though it’s not the death I expected. Researching her life, I discovered that the real Isadora Duncan died in 1927, in a bizarre accident that reads like a modernized Grimm folktale, or like a scene invented by a novelist. Riding away from a party in an open-air automobile, the long scarf Duncan wore around her neck became tangled in one of the car’s wheels. The nature of her injury depends upon which account one chooses to read, but it makes little difference. The “extraordinary manner” of the accident that took the dancer’s life, notes her obituary in the New York Times, spared Duncan the pain of contemplating her own death; it robbed her, too, of the knowledge of her fate. Owing to “the force of her fall to the stone pavement,” continues the Times in morbid detail, Isadora Duncan’s death was instantaneous.


Daniel LoPilato is a fiction writer from Atlanta. He earned a BA from the University of Georgia and will begin pursuing an MFA in fiction this fall at Florida State University. He has worked as an editorial assistant, a development officer, and, most recently, a Popsicle vendor.

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