[Tin House; 2023]
I pick up my phone from my desk for no reason, my thumb tapped into forces beyond my control. Sometimes the places my fingers take me are nice: a little message from someone I love, a smart article that will be useful for this review. More often, it takes me to a non-place, full of stimulus that will only crowd my mind, slacken my focus and, paradoxically, make me feel like an astronaut cut from her tether, floating in space.
“It is hard to put a spotlight on something that is as wide as the world in which it exists,” writes Athena Dixon. She’s speaking from the heart of the pandemic, the loneliest moment of an era defined by technologically conditioned loneliness. How to write about a phenomenon that touches everything? Over the course of a simultaneously intense and breezy two-hundred pages, this poet, essayist, editor, and self-identified recluse does just this. Dixon investigates a feeling—loneliness—that organizes her life and her generation.
The Loneliness Files, Dixon’s second essay collection, contains sixteen nonfiction essays grouped into three loose categories. Each section comes with a three-track playlist titled “recommended listening. You get the sense that these are songs Dixon listened to while writing the book, or editing it in her head as she drove around. Some of them really land, others less so, which is usually what it’s like when someone makes me a playlist. More than anything, the songs are a window into Dixon’s private life, a gesture towards intimacy.
In her new collection, Dixon writes critically about technology and loneliness without ever slipping into the realm of self-help, answers, or alternatives. “The liminal spaces of our new world are massive,” Dixon writes, “—easy for us to be swallowed into—and disorienting.” It’s a popular topic: the digital world and how it shapes, satisfies, and harms us. Dixon’s perspective is unique, I think because of the particular ratio of memoir and criticism in her work. She uses the personal to get at the cultural as much as she examines the cultural to understand her own life, which is a hard thing to do.
It helps that Dixon doesn’t hold herself apart from the tech-addicted masses—much of the book is about how online she is. As much as Dixon is concerned with the current situation, her online presence hearkens back to a time when being online was more wholesome. The writer of a popular Black Panther fan fiction page, Dixon started out when the internet existed in the cracks of everyday life. Before our phones were computers and could contain so much of our lives, technology was more dispersed. Dixon recalls taping TV show reruns on VHS tapes. Your desktop computer placed a physical limit on your online life, and there was still some space between your longing, waiting, or discomfort and the satisfaction of exchanging it for content.
While all of these essays combine cultural criticism with memoir, they get more intimate as the book progresses. The first stories are more aloof, calling to mind Jia Tolentino’s hot takes from the depths of cultural enmeshment in Trick Mirror. In Dixon’s book, the reader is slowly let in to the details of the author’s life until, by the end of the book, we are back in her hometown, drinking vodka cocktails at a local dive with her family after a funeral. We glimpse the particular quality of memory, regression, and guilt that comes from being home when you have built your adult life somewhere else. The ability to avoid the passing of time, the dying of loved ones, is not always nice. Sometimes it is. It feels good to have built a life away from home. Looking at the objects in her apartment, Dixon describes feeling “the comforting weight of the life I’ve built settling around me.” Still, Dixon fears dying alone.
In fact, the book opens with an essay about women in the news who were found dead in their homes, often years after they died. Dixon feels a kinship with these women who managed to slip unnoticed out of the world. She’s also just into their stories, loves diving into all the online content available about these women. Their kinship is about freedom—it’s cool to be free but also terrifying. Thinking about one of the women in particular, Dixon writes, “Joyce teetered above a safety net riddled with holes large enough for her body to fit through. Joyce was known, but it was of no consequence. It was only when the business of the world could no longer exist around her absence that it truly mattered.” Dixon fears that, like these women, she is tied to the world by tenuous, primarily financial threads. Now their lives have been reconstructed to the benefit of true crime podcasts and lurid TV series. “If you distill a person to a handful of salacious bullet points and a gruesome demise, you have what you need to forget they were an actual person.” The internet helps us absolve ourselves of responsibility for other people. “If you are forced to remember anything other than this,” Dixon writes, “that means you must see all a person contains.” It is easier not to see each other, to let people pass by unnoticed and never figure out where they’ve been or where they are going. “We loop and lap each other never knowing what trails the person we’ve passed or just what awaits them once they are beyond our view.”
The later essays root the author in the specific world of her childhood. Dixon grew up in Alliance, Ohio—Black, working class, with a hard family history of alcoholism. Dixon tells a story about being pulled over and harassed by cops for nothing on a rural road, tells it in a way that articulates all the horror of the experience and the horrible fact that it happens to people all the time. She writes about visiting an alcoholic family member, driving this woman to the liquor store and back home, reflecting on her own relationship with drinking. Dixon is very good at describing complex situations without moralizing them. “Imagine the 16.7 million gallons of spirits sold in Ohio in 2020,” Dixon writes, “how it would crest over the landscape creating joy and sorrow in its wake. How it would wash away foundations and build a slope of bottles clattering across generations.”
Sometimes loneliness is not a weight, but a lightness. Dixon compares herself, single and past the culturally delineated category of youth, writing essays and slogging through the morass of online dating, to her mother, who at the analogous time in her life was a homeowner with a husband and two children. “I feel like I am twisting in the wind—” Dixon writes, “completely and utterly free in ways I never asked for or expected.” Dixon is independent and successful; she’s built a life for herself in Philadelphia, a much bigger town than the one she grew up in. Her work is published and acclaimed. But even if Dixon is more successful by the standards of the day than her working-class parents, she views her own life as less grounded than theirs. Houses are expensive, jobs are scarce, it’s harder to meet people you might want to have kids with when everyone lives on their phones. Freedom and independence might not be so appealing after all.
“Divorced and solidly middle-aged without much change in sight,” Dixon thinks about having a child. Her best friend offers his seed to the cause, and she spends some time thinking about it seriously. From the beginning, we know that this is a story about regret. Haunted by the unborn, Dixon investigates a local Ohio myth about a bridge where mothers toss unwanted babies into the Mahoning river. “The legend is about escape,” she writes, “even though I don’t understand the actions.” Like with the news stories of women who died alone, Dixon takes the tale of Cry Baby Bridge as far as the internet will let her go with it. She exhausts the available content on YouTube and Google—“small towns have a way of holding their secrets”—and enlists her father’s help. The two of them ask locals what they know about the bridge. Like most folktales, the story adapts to the specific needs of each orator. What Dixon is seeking in the story seems to be something solid to rest her nebulous grief upon. “I kind of wish for a babble in the wind,” Dixon wishes for a ghost as real and disruptive as the one in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but all she has is a metaphor: “The city breaks with a siren a few streets over—the wail of it echoes like cries over water.”
Many of the stories in Dixon’s essays center the uncanny, what Freud defined as the condition of the familiar suddenly becoming strange or frightening. Dixon writes about being less afraid of blood and gore and more afraid of “reflections in computer screens or what could be possibly lurking in the everyday items I touched.” She offers readings of several movies that center this theme: Jordan Peele’s Us, taking on the classic uncanny situation of the double or doppelganger, along with The Truman Show, a movie about a man who turns out to be living in a movie. Artists have long grappled with the question that recent technology makes urgent: What is the real? How can we distinguish it from fantasy or art? What is the point at which digital life becomes as real, if not more real, than analog life? Does it matter?
These questions have preoccupied Dixon since childhood. Her dad once reminded her that she’d often “ask if the world was real—that if we turned around, would the world behind us exist?” These days, we’re confronted with a constant influx of simulations of communication, fun, intimacy, activity, travel. But we’re not present: it’s like seeing the world after your death, or a world into which you were never born. This is one of the central questions of Dixon’s book: “I’ve been asking myself for months what it means to be disconnected and how even with the entirety of the world a few swipes away I feel this disconnect so keenly.” If, as Freud claimed, the familiar becomes strange because we repress it and then it returns, it makes sense that technology would disorient and empty us so intensely.
Dixon’s essay about a session in a sensory deprivation tank is one of the best in the collection. These are dark, human-sized pods full of extremely salty water that you pay to float in for a designated amount of time. One writer described his tank as looking like “a big clam.” It’s supposed to be relaxing, good for you, and kind of psychedelic. Dixon describes moving through momentary pleasure into panic, over-thinking, restlessness. It ends up being a pretty harrowing story about being addicted to communication: “In the tank, I long for the glowing comfort of my phone and the smooth ache of my thumb muscle stretching to tap the screen. There is so much fear.” I wonder what she’s scared of, which is the same as wondering what I’m scared of when I reach for my phone to avoid writing this review or imagine how many times you’ve checked your email reading it. Dixon has come to the tank to overcome this fear—the fear of intimacy? Of having a body? Of existing for a moment in time? Of dying?—while also longing to escape it. Loneliness is ambivalent. Sometimes it feels good and sometimes it feels awful. It makes sense that the kind of space travel our technology simulates is easier than an hour in a sensory deprivation tank. Our phones let us float in space while still feeling connected to all the earthlings back at home—free but never alone. Sometimes a stronger tether would be nice. When Dixon gets out of the tank, she turns her phone on immediately, still dripping wet and naked, basking in the glow of it, the ding of notifications.
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