Excerpt from The Inward Empire by Christian Donlan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Inward Empire

Mapping the Wilds of Mortality and Fatherhood

by Christian Donlan

The Inward Empire by Christian Donlan X
The Inward Empire by Christian Donlan
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  • Published:
    Jun 2018, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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Help Me

I was twenty-five when I saw what the brain can do.

Dawn in a house that my brother and his wife had recently bought — tall and thin with a spine of creaking staircases running through the center, surrounded by old rooms perfect for the clattering passage of young children, none of whom had yet been born. My dad had woken me from the sofa in the lounge. He brought me up to the big bedroom on the first floor. Inside, my brother was having a grand mal seizure.

I did not want to see Ben having a fit. I had felt, up to this point, that I could either be stoical or informed, and I had chosen stoicism. Dad, however, seemed to understand that I was faking adulthood, that I was a large child loose in the world and that nothing real had ever happened to me. There are ways I have learned to avoid becoming an adult. I can't drive. I never organized a pension until the government did it for me.

I have avoided thinking about this moment for the last decade, and so the memory is bright and sharp and undisturbed. I almost feel like I could reach out with my hand and push through some invisible boundary, the air parting in thick, mineral clods, to find myself back in that room, a red shirt hanging over the mirror, water spilled from a glass and exploring the grooves and divots of the bare floorboards. Ben is laid out on the bed in the recovery position, and Dad stands over him. Ben is rocking back and forth rhythmically, to an insistent soundtrack that only he can hear. His hands are fists, his mouth is open, one foot is flopping against the other again and again and again. I am stalled in the doorway. I have never wanted to run away quite so much as I want to run away right now.

Dad talks to me. He says: "Come in. Sit down." He speaks gently, but it is not quite a request. "Tell him you're here," he says. "Touch his arm. Show him you are here."

Ben did not look how I expected him to. I had seen the long-term sick by this point, and I had noted in my callous way how the ailing body sometimes seems like something forgotten and perhaps badly stored, creased and dirty and worn away. My brother's body did not look like that. He was tall and slim and unblemished, a parody of wellness as he twitched and shuddered on the bed. I put a hand on his leg. I had not touched my brother in years, it seemed. We feel things in my family, great, untranslatable emotions, as are felt, I imagine, in every family. But we do not touch each other often. I only did it now because I did not want Ben to die.

Family love is the most complex, the most selfish. I needed Ben to live so that I could continue being myself.

And this: for all the years of adulthood I have often fretted tediously, indulgently, unconvincingly, about who I am. I have never wondered what I am, because I saw it there with Ben, lit up brightly in that accident of synapses. I saw what we all are, and I saw, at least I thought I saw, how easily we can be wiped away, even if it's only for a few minutes. The thing I now wonder about that day: where was Ben when we all gathered together in his bedroom? Was he still in there, looking out from some deep interior, unable to surface? Was he silently screaming as he shook back and forth? Or had he been taken somewhere else entirely? Had he been dropped down, muted, set to pause?

I think of Dad too. I wonder what he was thinking.

One of the most interesting things about having a child and watching them grow is seeing how things come online in stages. They can focus on you, then they can smile. They can hold their head up for themselves, then they can crawl. The brain of a newborn is not finished. For years it is growing, new pieces of it firing up as the months pass. Even now, this does not end. As I write this, my daughter is almost four years old, and yesterday she came in while I was reading, scarecrowed herself forcefully in front of the mirror and, looking down at her clothes, said: "Does this work? "

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Excerpted from The Inward Empire by Christian Donlan. Copyright © 2018 by Christian Donlan. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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