[Melville House; 2024]

I recently posted my PO box on social media with an invitation for pen pals, and two takers sent letters composed over a period of several days. (Was this to make the postage worth it? To give the space of the letter time to gather details?) Both also texted me to make sure I received their letters, both mentioned the way my life looks on social media, and both included a version of “I feel like I’m talking about myself a lot.”

The Italy Letters by Vi Khi Nao produces similar questions about what letter-writing is in the age of the internet. What is the point of an epistolary exchange if something more immediate and more visual, like texting or Instagram, inserts itself in the meantime? But Nao doesn’t theorize about correspondence in the space of this novel, and anyway, maybe this question isn’t the right one. Perhaps a more accurate version of the question this book asks is: where do you put your emotional energy when you love someone who doesn’t love you back? How do you moderate communication when communication is so accessible?

The Italy Letters isn’t a record of a reciprocal correspondence by mail. It’s a long, unsent letter that reads like a diary addressed to a beloved, and although the narrator and her beloved do apparently exchange letters, these aren’t available to the reader. In a meta moment, the narrator says, “I’m having a hard time writing you letters lately because this manuscript feels like a gigantic letter to me.” Her thoughts about the beloved are generative (they cohere into an entire manuscript!), but they are also distracting her from the project of actually communicating. The unsent letter-manuscript becomes a field for articulating desire but also magnifying delusion:

Most of all, I don’t expect my love for you to go anywhere, just to give me the optical illusion that there was time or the illusion of time or the illusion of knowing myself and knowing you through desiring you.

Opposite this love and the project of writing through it is the immediacy of the narrator’s domestic relationship, which is a relationship of caretaking. The narrator’s mother is sick, so she spends her time cooking and eating and talking with her mother while her mind and heart are occupied by this correspondence. There is a sharpness in the comparison of types of intimacy: relationships with those with whom we cohabitate and navigate our daily lives versus those about whom we project and fantasize—the stuff of love letters.

What the letter-space makes particularly possible is projection. Nao’s narrator writes, “There were long gazes into the unknown, where you made yourself a void and I was also a void.” She talks about this in terms of what happens when the real person cleaves from the imagined one, producing two ideas of her beloved: “And, when I met you, you did not look like you.” One—the real one—replaces the ideal one, and the gulf between them makes the narrator consider the “great exquisiteness” of a healthy relationship, which she desires but feels eludes her. But even when the narrator feels estranged from her beloved, she can pick up her phone and have a brief text conversation with her, so what isn’t clear is whether the void suggests possibility or loss—a wish stained with a wound.

Moments when the narrator and her beloved communicate by text message produce an opportunity to compare the immediacy of phone-mediated intimacy (how texting lets us drop in and out of conversations in between other activities) to the actual letters exchanged and to the intimacy of the ongoing and internal unsent letter. When texting, the narrator leaves her you in her “digital plane,” a dynamic other than the anticipation of a reply to a letter. Over text, the narrator and her beloved also talk about withholding details about their lives specifically for sharing later, in a letter, which apparently does get sent but which is not a part of the novel.

Distance and geography inflect the novel’s handling of relational time. At one point, the narrator’s feelings about the way she and her beloved speak to each other over text message gather around the necessary lulls in their communication due to time zones: “This question did not open itself to me until much later, when you were in your London bed sleeping deeply, and I had time to review our conversations for the day.” But geography and time do not mute moments—events are concurrent. When you’re missing someone in between or after interacting with them, they’re still somewhere in the world, existing on their own terms, and Nao makes vivid the anxiety of awaiting a response from inside this kind of separation. As a result, the shape of the novel is not a narrative arc in the sense of the character’s trajectory or growth but as intervals of a relationship—infatuation, its exchange, and its dimming.

I have found it difficult to describe the structure of this novel in part because I read its structure as at odds with its title, which suggests an epistolary record. Instead, the novel is the manuscript the narrator writes in the space around the letters and texts she sends to her beloved, so the only image the reader has of the epistolary exchange is a summary. This book produces imaginative questions about the nature and degrees of intimacy, but it mostly reads more like a thought experiment than a novel. It orbits the uses of love letters without generalizing about the act of letter-writing or reproducing the letters themselves.

What the book does do is describe a specific relationship between two individuals, and because the narrator inhabits a social world that looks, quite legibly, like the Brown University MFA program, of which Nao is a graduate, I fell into reading it as minimally novelized, though it calls itself a novel. That is, it made me consider what it means to name a book a novel—and what it suggests to the reader when a narrator refers to her own narrative as a manuscript. Nao is prolific, and her large, genre-pushing body of work is characterized by slippages between a real world that includes Forrest Gander and C.D. Wright, as well as a fictional world where her characters constellate around dreamscape details that belong to a reality that is not exactly the one we’re inhabiting. Some of Nao’s novels hew more closely than others to the lived experience of an academic artist, including networks of writers, awards, conferences, readings, and periods of tenuous income—this is one of them.

Some of these details feel rote to me, fitting this novel into the category of writerly books by MFA program graduates. Why not edge the narrator into a less academically personalized space and see what kinds of narrative ideas and formal possibilities open that way? Over the course of the narrative, which is segmented by the cities she writes from, the narrator loses the thread of what the correspondence is for, or what result the direct address seeks. This dissolution attends the narrator’s directionlessness, which is geographical as well as vocational. Still, something compels her to write through this dynamic: “Another part of me wanted to explore and differentiate the difference between desire and the collapse of desire.” These moments of clarity about what the writing is for are where the narrative is at its most curious and intentional.

The novel’s main stimulant is the narrator’s infatuation with the person she writes to. It isn’t clear whether this infatuation is reciprocated, but the narrator expresses clear sexual interest attended by a clear desire to use letter-writing to evolve the situation. The tenor of this correspondence reminds me of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, and how Melville called Hawthorne his “divine magnet,” an energetic source of creative inspiration. Like a love poem, it invites the reader to project their own loves, to fill in this outline with personal resonance. It made me think about my own correspondence with someone who, at least retrospectively, I knew was a presence in my life that would never manifest in the way I desired it to. Regardless, I addressed myself to this person in poems for a long time. If nothing else, this kind of relationship is creatively generative, and Nao’s narrator seems to experience this dynamic similarly—the narrative ends when the energy around the correspondence runs out.

Both of the letters my friends sent me this spring helped me learn something about how they think about and write their days and thoughts, which isn’t a kind of intimacy I’d had with them before. It is a space unlike a text message, unlike an email or social media post, and unlike a conversation. A letter is a lot of space to fill with information about yourself, where you might solicit information about the person you’re addressing yourself to, but the only possible way to engage with their reality is by speculation or projection. Now, thanks to their willingness to write about themselves for me, I have images from and of their lives that I probably would not otherwise have, which is a gift.

Where the letter might provide a reflective surface, the novel can also be a kind of mirror, and this novel provides a field for questioning and theorizing intimacy and correspondence that is easy to personalize. This imaginative possibility is especially available in the kinds of relationships and anxieties present: maternal, erotic, academic, the loss of lovers and friends. The novel asks what a letter is for, cognitively and intimately. It asks something like: what if I wrote my thoughts to you for a period of time but never actually loved you with my everyday? The Italy Letters appeals to a beloved in exactly this way—a sexy, reaching way that knows, even as it reaches, that the connection isn’t likely to manifest.

Anna Zumbahlen is a poet living in Joshua Tree, California. Find recent work at www.annazum.com.

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