Essayism

Brian Dillon

Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name should be something like: an effort, an attempt, a trial. Surmise or hazard, followed likely by failure. Imagine what it might rescue from disaster and achieve at the levels of form, style, texture and therefore (though some might cavil at “therefore”) at the level of thought. Not to mention feeling. Picture if you can its profile on the page: from a solid spate of argument or narrative to isolated promontories of text, these composing in their sum the archipelago of a work, or a body of work. The page an estuary, dotted at intervals with typographical buoys or markers. And all the currents or sediments in between: sermons, dialogues, lists and surveys, small eddies of print or whole books construed as single essays. A shoal or school made of these. Listen for possible cadences this thing might create: orotund and authoritative; ardent and fizzing; slow and exacting to the point of pain or pleasure; halting, vulnerable, tentative; brutal and peremptory; a shuffling or amalgam of all such actions or qualities. An uncharted tract or plain. And yet certain ancient routes allow us to pilot our way through to the source, then out again, adventuring.

A love letter to the essay and its writers, Brian Dillon doesn’t analyze the form or detail its history, but rather waxes lyrical. The book is, of course, essentially a collection of essays itself, and while it may ostensibly focus on different techniques — as “On Lists” examines Joan Didion’s use of that format in The White Album — it’s not trying to be instructive either. Over the course of Essayism, Dillon provides increasingly personal context for why he loves this particular type of writing, in the recurring “On Consolation” entries in particular.

Written in the aftermath of a significant break-up, Essayism delves in parts into Dillon’s mental health struggles, entwined with his mother’s difficulties with depression, before her early death from scleroderma (an autoimmune disease). In the immediate days after her death, Dillon read an issue of the music weekly NME over and over. Eventually he sought out Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which at first he found he could not read. A year later, he returned to it, and a broader realm opened to him.

I think what I wanted from writing — from Barthes in particular but others too — was a passage out of the dismal place in which I found myself in my midteens, but also some assurance that the world could not only be recast in words but had been made of language in the first place.