Standing Near Enough to Feel Its Warmth: A Review of Sam Heaps's Proximity
Gabi Diaz Guerrero
The old refrain that everything is about sex except for sex is a cliché for a reason. The ways we relate to our bodies, or feel intrinsically unrelated to them, unmoored from them in particular ways to our lives and memories, come across in sex, which operates as a palimpsest on which we write and rewrite the ways we experience pleasure, pain, love, and connection. Some would say these are the ways we experience our proximity to others. Sam Heaps’s Proximity chronicles desire and love throughout their life in various vignettes, and positions us, the readers, as the “you” that describes their partners, an audience of voyeurs, themselves, and more. Heaps plays with this variable notion of “you” and us throughout, even explicitly asking, “I wonder, do they seem coherent? Do you see the value to them? Do they resemble something in your own life and so can forgive me this stringing together of happy bits,” when they observe that “so many of these [essays] have lapsed into nostalgia.”
The first book from Heaps, a 2022 Tin House Scholar, Proximity encourages (though never demands) its readers variously re-tread the non-linear memories and sketches that Heaps places them in. It is divided into five parts, with individual chapter titles running through nonsequential Roman numerals interspersed with chapters simply titled “A,” after the married lover (and the devastating heartbreak their affair represents) that drives and undergirds most of Heaps’ reflections. Through these sections, readers are drawn into the same proximity, which may or may not encompass vital connection with others, that Heaps considers the cornerstone of their affair with A, and of many of their other experiences with sex, desire, and power throughout.
The book’s reflections are wide ranging, including childhood experiences like knowing the word “rape” before the word “fuck” and experimenting with gender (“Yes we are children, but can we not be lovesick too?”). These early experiences are set alongside painfully self-aware, envy-filled snippets observing A’s wife from the outside looking in (“If only I could be her”; “You choose her. You love her”; “I feel wonderful writing this bitter lonely garbage”). The book goes on to recount domestic violence right alongside moments of genuine tenderness and several hospitalizations for eating disorders and mental illness.
Altogether, readers have the distance between them and this memoir erased linguistically, but never fully psychically, as they are left to wonder why Heaps ties the sections together the way they do. To be fair, Heaps themselves wonders what it is that compels their writing throughout, asking, “Then, reader, is this a love story? If not reader. What story is this” and “Why something so tired and long?” In these moments, Heaps notably addresses the reader separately again, breaking the illusion of the “you” they maintain so often throughout most of the sections. The readers are left to wonder about this, too, if they choose to. That choice, the refusal to demand anything of the reader beyond their undeniable presence in the text that Heaps has formed themselves, is particularly notable in this memoir regarding the sex and desire and pain Heaps describes in both longer streams of consciousness and in laconic chapters like “The First Woman I Fuck [Redacted. Mine.].”
Why the numbering of the chapters in this way? Why the unclear but ever-present you that is addressed? Why these stories, why these memories, why these violences and tender moments? Why end with A and a distant, grainy picture of two figures at the edge of the ocean on a beach? Why not? You can choose to skim these essays, and perhaps you will gain that resemblance to something in your life that Heaps guesses might keep you engaged. You can also choose to parse them more closely. The choice always remains with you, and Heaps would be the last to judge you either way. Toward the very end of their last chapter, they ask, “Have I emerged? Am I clean? At least I am not afraid anymore.” But then they give the very last word to the imagined voice of their lover A and how being with them “is like finally being warm.” The reader can sense the ambivalence they write with, but may at least be awed by their honesty, might at least understand the appreciation for mere proximity that Heaps themselves has developed in some way.
GABI DIAZ GUERRERO is from Miami, Florida, and is a PhD student in FSU’s rhetoric and composition program. Her research interests include digital rhetorics, global/cultural rhetorics, writing centers, and online identity and communities.
SAM HEAPS is a genderqueer writer, visual artist, and organizer who currently lives in Philadelphia, where they also teach writing at the University of the Arts. They are a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Scholar and a 2022 VCCA Fellow. Their work has appeared in Entropy, Taco Bell Quarterly, and Communion Arts Journal, among other publications. Proximity is their first book.