Review of “The Unwritten Book” by Samantha Hunt

Ron Sexsmith, the melancholic Canadian singer-songwriter, mourns the loss of songs that never were. “For every song you heard, how many more died at birth?” he wondered on his 2001 album, “blue boysuggesting a vast graveyard of rhymeless lyrics and unstruck chords. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, meanwhile, sees perfection in music that doesn’t exist. “The best song will never be sung / The best life never leaves your lungs,” he declared on his band’s 2004 album, “A ghost is born.”

On this spectrum of missing the unknowable, writer Samantha Hunt falls somewhere in the middle. The daughter of parents who gave up their literary aspirations to support their family of eight, Hunt asks, “What projects don’t exist because I exist instead?” Considering the death of German writer WG Sebald at age 57, Hunt imagines a library filled with “all the books dead authors would never write because they died too young.”

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Hunt visits this and other libraries invented throughout “The Unwritten Book: An Investigation“, the intense new collection of memoirs/essays from the novelist and short story writer behind “Mr. Split Foot,” “dark darkness” and other works that seek life among the shadows. Just as Tweedy defends the music of fictional bands in his song, Hunt is fascinated by books that only appear in other books, books destroyed by authors fearing publication, and books left unfinished or unattempted by their creators.

“I’ve lost my mind about books,” Hunt admits at the start of “The Unwritten Book.” She hardly complains. In the books, Hunt finds his love of life, of simply being, reflected in all sorts of languages, people and ideas. She also sees the books as reminders of the inevitable end of life and the grim reality that “most of our lives have been spent shrinking, eroding to pieces and decaying”.

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Make no mistake: “The Unwritten Book” is a downside. Sometimes it’s major. Hunt talks about friends, neighbors and colleagues who died during the years she spent working on the book. Some died violently. Others were swept away by covid-19. Hunt stares into this darkness, but she keeps looking for the cracks. She understands, as Leonard Cohen sang, “this is how the light comes in”.

“This piece seems to be written in the voice of someone who believes she is okay with death,” Hunt, 50, writes in an essay, “as if I had calmly meditated on our mortality and moved past fear. It’s not true. I want to find a new story to die for.

She discovers such a story in an office that belonged to her father, who died at 71 of cancer. A longtime editor at Reader’s Digest, Walter Hunt writes fiction in his spare time. He finished at least one novel, which he allowed his daughter to read, and left three rough chapters of another unfinished work he had never told her about.

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This “unwritten book” is set in 1981 and involves a widowed editor, government agents and a mysterious organization whose members are believed to be able to fly “without wings”. Within the pages of her own book, Hunt reproduces her father’s text, typos and all, viewing it as “evidence collected by a daughter/detective trying to interrogate her dead father.” The aborted novel becomes just one more book to haunt her, and Hunt’s annotations reveal that she is both mystified and protective of her father’s efforts.

Sharing his father’s writings, Hunt can’t help but examine his own work. She fears that “The Unwritten Book” is itself incomplete, that she cannot “explain everything”. This thought comes more than 300 pages after Hunt wonders where to start “when writing a book about birds, words, books, death, hormones, collections, desire, letters, alcohol, the family, the birds? A circle begins where? Or more precisely, where does a circle end? »

It’s a measure of Hunt’s generosity—to the reader, but also to herself—that her answers to these questions evolve throughout the book. “The facts are singular”, she writes, “the truth can be multiple”. Hunt seeks beauty in impermanence, whether in an old car, the house from the movie “Poltergeist” or boy band One Direction. Because everyone and everything will one day become an absence, to be alive is to be haunted, argues Hunt. The key is to recognize your ghosts, to keep them present, even when they are terrifying.

In the book’s opening essay, Hunt imagines the dead demanding that she apologize for supposedly speaking for them, a charge she denies. “In the face of their steely silence, I will plead absurdity,” she wrote, not turning for the last time to the comfort of treasured books and those she can only hope to read.

Jake Cline is a Miami-based writer and editor.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages. $28

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