THIS BRILLIANT DARKNESS
A Book of Strangers
By Jeff Sharlet
Why do we sometimes gravitate toward the unknown when we feel alone? The writing in Jeff Sharlet’s gorgeous new book, “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers,” takes place between lonely traumas: his father’s heart attack and his own, two years later. As a magazine writer and the author of several books, Sharlet has made a long career of telling stories, but after his heart attack he started to re-evaluate the kinds he thought were worthwhile. “I’d begun to notice patterns in the stories I told,” he writes, “and then I’d accepted that the patterns were really formulas.” He stopped taking on assignments, gave up returning phone calls and began ignoring deadlines. Instead he turned to posting snapshots on Instagram. These were not solipsistic selfies but images of strangers and their lives.
The results, collected in “This Brilliant Darkness,” are reminiscent of the work of James Agee, who states in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron.” Like Agee and his collaborator, the photographer Walker Evans, Sharlet finds a powerful alchemy in writing and looking, and his snapshots inspire a series of micro-narratives — a mix of documentary, memoir and meditation. “This is a book of other people’s lives,” he writes, “lives that became for a moment — the duration of a snapshot — my life, too.” In this communion of taking and sharing images — an act between strangers, photographer and subject, author and reader — lies the heart of this book.
Sharlet takes us to pockets of the world most of us will never see or bother to notice, and he has an unusual ability to find grace in everyone’s story, training his eye on those whom the rest of us avoid, either out of fear or a lack of curiosity. We meet drifters, radicals, heroin addicts, night-shift workers, junk shop owners. The story of 61-year-old Mary Mazur, a homeless woman, is a small masterpiece for its nuanced depiction of unresolved grief. When Sharlet meets Mazur, she’s at Crown Fried Chicken, in a wheelchair, being accosted by the police, gripping her most beloved possession — a plant. Mazur has owned a lot of pets and plants, and, with a few exceptions, all have had one of three names: Cleopatra, Pinky or Beauty. It’s not easy to care for them. “But you gotta love something,” she says. When Mazur gets a Walmart gift card, she buys a fish tank and 10 fish. All 10 fish get three names. Three, we learn, is the number of children Mazur has had — all taken away from her. When one of the fish dies, she keeps it for a while, unable to let go.
Sharlet also photographs the most ordinary objects and moments: the light at sundown, a scale, a window lit with the glow of a television. It’s as if there had been a net strung beneath the edits of his previous books and articles, catching all the incredible moments too enigmatic to fit a traditional story. The white space in “This Brilliant Darkness” is teeming with life, too, functioning less like a break between vignettes than the lonely domain of strangers — a harrowing reminder that there are millions of stories out there, and this book contains just a fraction of them.
When we suffer, we often no longer feel connected to the things we know; in many ways “This Brilliant Darkness” is a document of the searching that follows grief. On one page, Sharlet might be writing about Skid Row. On another, he’s discussing a postcard he wrote to his mother (who died of breast cancer when he was still in his teens). Poignantly, Sharlet also writes about sharing snapshots with his subjects. The book ingeniously reminds us that all of our lives — our struggles, desires, grief — happen concurrently with everyone else’s, and this awareness helps dissolve the boundaries between us.