Attention Maximally Paid

By Sebastian Matthews

January 7, 2022

Attention Maximally Paid

Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day by Sonya Huber

I must admit, before reading Supremely Tiny Acts, I hadn’t read Sonya Huber’s work. When the book arrived on my doorstep recently, I wasn’t sure about its context. Did I order it? Had someone sent it to me as a gift? Was it an advanced reader’s copy? I read the first few pages with mild curiosity; and, enjoying what I read, I put the slim, key-lime green book on my things-to-read pile and promptly forgot about it.

A few days later, I heard from the book editor at River Teeth, asking if the Huber had arrived. Turns out that it was months late due to supply-chain problems. And then I remembered. Yes, I had agreed to review it. I picked the book up again and reread those first few pages. Somehow, I had managed to come to this work without preconception as if I were opening it at random at a bookstore—because I liked the title or the cover or found the subtitle “a memoir of a day” intriguing—reading to see if I was transported by what I was reading. And I was. For a second time. I liked the syntax and the images and the voice. Which is how a book I was supposed to review became a strange sort of impulse buy before transforming itself back into a book I was assigned to review.

Enough of me. Here’s the premise of the book: The author chooses one very specific day in her recent past—November 19, 2019—to write a “memoir” about. The day “sticks in my head,” Huber writes, “because of the chemistry of adrenaline, downtime, and notes made in a journal.” Specifically, it’s a day that requires her to go to court for an act of civil disobedience (she had strapped herself to a boat in the center of a busy Manhattan intersection) and to take her son, Ivan, to the DMV to get his driver’s permit. Both activist and mom—as well as professor and writer—Huber chooses to write about her life through the lens of a set of intersections, literal and emblematic.

Pretty cool, huh? Also: pretty damn risky. Like watching someone tightrope walk without a net. You watch partly to see if she can pull it off and partly to see if she’ll fall. Of course, Huber knows this. She writes early, and ironically, in the book: “I’m taking your time with my real-life bullshit, and there’s no excuse for it.” But, instead of assuming her own brilliance, she makes a jujitsu-like move: “So, I am going to assume I am among friends.” And then, in another brilliant move, Huber references an experiment she and other writers did with the essayist Ander Monson in which he asked everyone to pick a day and write about it. By page 6, we know who the narrator is, what she’s going to write about, why she’s doing so, who her influences are, and how the book’s idea came to fruition. All this before she’s even gotten out of bed.

Huber’s setting out to write about a day isn’t without precedence. Ulysses comes to mind, as does Mrs. Dalloway. More recently, as Huber refers to early in the book, there’s Nicholas Baker’s The Mezzanine and the six-novel epic by Karl Ove Knausgard. But those books are fiction. In nonfiction, I think of Thoreau’s and Nin’s journals as well as Joseph Pla’s The Gray Notebook, an example of early “autofiction.” (The New Yorker recently did a feature, “The Most Ambitious Diary in History,” on a Bennington professor who wrote obsessively about his life, day by day, millions of pages, never published.) It seems this microscopic tendency to cover daily life has picked up traction of late, perhaps as part of the memoir craze. Or, as Huber herself puts it: “I think we have to get to the real, to catch the facts we have, to hold on to what we see . . ..”

A quick tally. By page 4, Huber’s gotten out of bed. On page 6, she’s making a to-do list. By page 20, she’s drinking coffee. It’s fun keeping track of the day’s mundanities inside all the narrative fireworks that flare up in this epic monologue. Between the to-do list and the coffee, for instance, we learn about her activism from her engagement with Extinction Rebellion (the strategic bit of street theater that gets a group of activists arrested on purpose) to its beginnings in her childhood. Along the way we are treated to all manner of narrative devices: digressions, casual asides, jumps in time (big and small), use of space breaks with backstory jumps, run-on free associations, etc. It’s virtuosic.

About halfway in, when Huber has arrived in court with all her co-conspirators, hoping to get out in time to take her son to the DMV, I started asking myself Is this a memoir or a long essay? Does it matter? What it feels like now, on the other side, is like is a strange combination of a comic’s monologue and a friend’s epic phone call rant that you sit in the dark and listen to, allowing the flow of images and ideas and moments wash over you. Of course, what Huber risks in doing this, and doing it in this way, is being that boring drunk at the bar that Annie Dillard warns writers avoid being—forcing the reader to sit there and listen to her sad tale.

Huber couldn’t pull any of this off if she didn’t display 1) the perfect combination of seriousness and humor, 2) a gift for language, and 3) a storytelling sense. Just in those first 20 pages alone, for instance, Huber confesses to wearing an adult diaper just in case she has to pee during the protest, describes a moment in the event as “like ring around the rosy in reverse,” and wonders if something like cop imposter syndrome exists. As I read, I’m following the character through her journey and the writer’s free-associating her monkey mind with a chaotic subject.

Such writers as Geoff Dyer and Matthew Specktor come to mind who allow themselves to ramble in an around a subject, not afraid to put themselves and their thoughts front and center. Dyer does it brilliantly in his book on D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, as does Specktor in his recent Always Crashing in the Same Car Twice, a book in which he conflates his own depression and failure with famous examples from Hollywood and contemporary literature.

I’m not going to say much about the book’s plot, if that’s what you call it, because I would be doing what those horribly long trailers for new movies or television shows do when they cover the entire narrative arc in a minute and a half, rendering moot the need to actually see the thing. But I will say that there are seriously important themes that come up and run through this book. Supremely Tiny Acts is not an act of whimsy. Indeed, it can be a deadly serious book when it tackles issues of white privilege, disability, activism, mothering, artmaking, and the need to do something—tiny acts—in the face of such, such, I am not even sure what to call it. Just look out your window.

It turns out Supremely Tiny Acts is not really a memoir of Huber’s experience of one day but a memoir, as the subtitle states, of that day. The day itself is the platform off which the writer jumps—back in time, forward in time—then keeps returning to. She does this at an unspecified remove, recalling things from years prior. The experience of reading the book is somewhat like looking over the writer’s shoulder as she constructs a set of scenes from her notes. a cohesive tale gets told, as if by magic, from all the little bits and pieces.

My favorite aspect of Supremely Tiny Acts might be the way Huber’s encounters with people—on that day, and on the day of the protest, as well as in her memories—accumulate and cohere in such a way that a wider and more inclusive sense of humanity emerges. She reminds me over and over to pay attention to the little moments, to those seemingly innocuous exchanges we have in everyday life; they may contain deep truths that could sustain us through difficult experiences.

Indeed, when Huber and Ivan arrive at the DMV, I’m bristling with alertness. (And, as we all know, “alertness” and “DMV” are not usually witnessed in the same sentence without “bomb threat” thrown in.) Her need to be there at that important turning point in his life is as important, maybe more important, than her need to be tied, with jailtime or a fine, to that boat in that intersection in downtown Manhattan. Huber’s book works like many of our great contemporary memoirs do, but on a miniature scale. And Huber manages somehow to be a miniaturist with a maximalist’s heart. It’s really something.

Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day by Sonya Huber

Mad Creek Books / The Ohio University State Press
 $19.95 | Buy Now

 

 

 

MatthewsSebastian Matthews’ latest books are a memoir in essays, Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State (Red Hen Press), and a hybrid collection of poetry and prose, Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision (Red Hen Press), an Independent Publisher’s Book Award winner. His other publications include two books of poems, the memoir In My Father’s Footsteps (W.W. Norton & Co.), and the collage novel The Life & Times of American Crow. Along with Stanley Plumly, he edited Search Party: The Collected Poems of William Matthews (Houghton Mifflin), which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Matthews serves on the board of trustees for the Vermont Studio Center and on the advisory board for Callaloo. He is the host of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a music and talk show broadcasted out of Asheville, NC, and livestreamed at wpvmfm.org. He leads workshops for the Great Smokies Writing Program, UNC-A, and offers classes on occasion at the Flat Iron Writers Room.

 

 

 

 

 

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