The Observable Universe
by Heather McCalden
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Pub Date 19 Mar 2024 | Archive Date 31 Jul 2024
“Brilliantly innovative . . . syncing a narrative of profoundly personal emotion with the invention and evolution of today’s cyberspace.”—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and The Peripheral
In the early 1990s, Heather McCalden lost both her parents to AIDS. She was seven when her father died, ten when she lost her mother. Raised by her grandmother, Nivia, she grew up in Los Angeles, also known as ground zero for the virus and its destruction.
Years later, she begins researching online the history of HIV as a way to deal with her loss, which leads her to the unexpected realization that the AIDS crisis and the internet developed on parallel timelines. By accumulating whatever fragments she could about both phenomena—images, anecdotes, and scientific entries—alongside her own personal history, McCalden forms a synaptic journey of what happened to her family, one that leads to an equally unexpected discovery about who her parents might have been.
Entwining this personal search with a wider cultural narrative of what the virus and virality mean in our times—interrogating what it means to “go viral” in an era of explosive biochemical and virtual contagion—The Observable Universe is at once a history of our viral culture and a prismatic account of grief in the internet age.
“It isn’t pain itself that inspires great art; it’s the frenzied avoidance of pain that pushes an artist to do something, anything, other than feel pain. This book is what arises from that practice: the artifact of one writer’s solitary, complicated grief. With every carefully, thoughtfully written page, one feels the unwritten grief thudding behind it, beautiful and monstrous. And in the end there’s no true story, no solution to the mystery, no final coherence. But there is this marvelous book.”
—Sarah Manguso, author of 300 Arguments and Very Cold People
“A gifted writer’s brilliantly innovative approach to autobiographical non-fiction, syncing a narrative of profoundly personal emotion with the invention and evolution of today’s cyberspace.”
—William Gibson, author of Necromancer and The Peripheral
“How is it possible to fit the whole universe in a book? Heather McCalden has miraculously combined far-flung ideas and stories to show the interconnectedness of all things. Bodies and technologies, selves and societies, histories and futures, memories and speculations—McCalden reaches far and wide, and brings it all home. This book is brave and unique.”
—Elvia Wilk, author of Death by Landscape
“Part meditation on loss, AIDS, and viral transmission, part howl of grief and fury, The Observable Universe spells out better than anything else I’ve read the transformative power of the internet. Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts meets Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, it is easily the equal of both.”
—Gavin Francis, author of Adventures in Human Being“An astonishing parsing of the fragments that make up that seamless whole we call a self. McCalden has given us a sparkling, spacious debut.”
—Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer
“An extraordinarily intimate record of grief in connected times, The Observable Universe is poetic and precise, tracing the spiraling connections, but also the empty spaces, the mysteries and emotional complexities the past leaves behind. This book is haunted, and will haunt its reader, too.”
—Roisin Kiberd, author of The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet
“The Observable Universe exquisitely undoes our concepts of illness, attachment, and entanglement. This book is not about HIV/AIDS, or about loss: it is born of them both, and so made of them. McCalden asks: if a virus is part of us, is it separate from us? When people die, are they still inside us? Strands of obsession, contagion, and radical inquiry braid together into lyrical meaning, without ever settling into moralistic conclusions or assessments. This book is explosive and profound, unusual and timeless. I believe deeply in the beautiful work it's doing.”
—Cyrus Dunham, author of A Year Without a Name
“A dazzling, kaleidoscopic work of art that pulls scientific inquiry, memoir, and uncanny metaphor into a weave powerful enough to transform grief — McCalden’s and your own. A book that is very much a survival guide for this era. The brilliance of McCalden’s work is that she understands that some losses are too painful to investigate head on. So McCalden comes in from the sides. Every side. All at once. The result is a kind of dazzling pointillism. The portrait she achieves by the end takes your breath away and gives you a roadmap for surviving your own losses in life.”
—Brit Marling, award-winning actress, producer and director of Netflix’s The OA and forthcoming FX series A Murder at the End of the World
“What does it mean to lose two parents to AIDS, to inherit a load of heartbreak? What forms can we invent to write unruly, keening, immoderate subjects? This book is catchy, a contagion of feeling, transmitting in all directions from McCalden’s taut and ghost-ridden mind. Its effects are sly and accretive. Beautifully researched and achingly tender, The Observable Universe filled me with awe.”
—Kyo Maclear, author of Unearthing