HERE'S WHAT I know about Kyle Boelte: When Karen Green's memoir Bough Down came out in 2013, he was one of only a handful of reviewers who wrote about it without identifying its subject, Green's late husband, David Foster Wallace. Boelte could see that her book, while apparently about Wallace's suicide, was really about something else entirely: how a person survives in the face of violent, instantaneous loss. In Boelte's review, Wallace's name is never mentioned; Bough Down wasn't about Wallace, after all—it was about grief.
After reading Boelte's new memoir, The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting, the origin of his empathy for Green could not be clearer. Boelte's brother's suicide is at the heart of The Beautiful Unseen, a book that's equal parts memoir and historical excavation. It's about Boelte's brother, Kris, who hung himself at the age of 16, but it is most of all about grief. It's also about the fog of San Francisco, which, interspersed with meditations on childhood, serves as a metaphor for the blindness brought on by receding memories, the isolation of pain, and the impenetrable nature of suicide—a loss that will never make sense.
Still, Boelte does look for answers (or at least origins), unearthing artifacts from Kris' life—his adoption papers and his death certificate, his CD collection and his disciplinary record—and seeking out scientific studies on fog and suicide. Throughout, he discovers that opposition to building a much-needed suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge is "mainly based on aesthetics", and that fog, sinker of ships and life force of California redwoods, is "only fog when you are inside of it." The Beautiful Unseen is a first book, and at times you can tell. Boelte's got some repetitive, throat-clearing sections that detract from the book overall. And I found his conclusion to be too neat, especially for a book that's most powerful when it's describing, without restraint, the infinite reverberations of suicide.
In one of these moments, Boelte shares his heartbreaking conclusion that a mix of factors that might normally be innocuous on their own may have fomented into something monstrous for his brother, as when the neat patterns of weather systems are disrupted—ruinously—by the arrival of El Niño. "Some researchers cite chaos theory," writes Boelte of El Niño, "which postulates that tiny differences in initial conditions can result in radically different outcomes." This is a nearly perfect metaphor, joining the consequences of destructive forces of nature to those of violent loss, made even more powerful by its subtlety: the translation of El Niño is, of course, "son." Boelte never states this explicitly, and he doesn't need to. Because moments like these are his bravest and best. Like W.H. Auden's poem, which goes, "stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone," they offer no false resolution, but instead look straight ahead, into the churning storm of a complicated grief.