On Tara Deal's That Night Alive
and Discomforts with Impermanence
Review by Amy Gulley
Tara Deal’s That Night Alive feels familiar. It’s the story of a woman who feels compelled to write even though it’s forbidden. She keeps her writing secret, but she does write, about her goals and dreams, about the things she finds beautiful.
But she does so in a world full of recording devices and monitors tracking people’s movements and words. The air is full of alarms and chemicals. Getting around cities on one’s own isn’t always permitted, and neither are border crossings. Climatic readjustment has changed the seasons, but “people don’t like to talk about the weather,” and no one is allowed to write in public. No one sends letters, and there’s no need for gorgeous, satisfyingly heavy paper. Creativity has gone extinct, and being a writer is a burden. Contrasted to past era jobs still admired (e.g. an electrician, a barista), writers “seem more like rats than pets,” and it’s suspect to be one. It’s a world as difficult to live in as a crappy apartment with blank white walls, and the narrator looks for color wherever she goes to escape them. She reads and writes to escape the desperation of all this, to break out of the entrapment.
Despite the familiar dystopia, the book takes the shape of a different vessel: told through vignettes in reverse chronological order. Some vignettes are numbered and dated to clarify the chronology, and some are titled with paint chips colors. Early in the book, the narrator’s doctor says she can put her rings back on, and she muses, “black jade won’t save me now. (Some people think they ward off evil spirits.),” and later in the text, but earlier in the timeline, we hear about her growing wealth and the jewelry she purchases with it, including the back jade, and that she mustn’t wear it “except in extreme cases,” as directed by the sustained mystery of the whole book: her job contract, which she tells us she can’t reveal anything about.
Her job is a kind of crypto-reportage. She becomes the Paris correspondent for the outlet she writes for and she writes about the city, and all she knows is that readers somewhere out there are searching for secret codes embedded in her words. But she doesn’t know anything about the codes; her job is to provide passages and keep her paychecks secret and that’s it. A job that initially sounds like a dream requires her to sacrifice her personal life, as well as her private writing. “They” control what she writes, where she lives, what color her hair is.
She sits on a bench every day to record her impressions of the city, and someone else is always surveilling her. She’s suspicious, presumed a rebel, and she’s forced out of Paris. She begins in a tiny, cold apartment in “the British Zone, part of the agreement with the New UK,” but from there on out, she’s constantly on the run. She is eager to begin again, elsewhere, to undo her first attempt and go somewhere different. “Keep moving, that’s what they say. Everyone changes apartments as soon as possible.”
The narrator watches people outside and through windows, and it’s the small things she notices. A man talks to his dog as he drags it uphill, and he convinces the dog to follow him to the top where there’s a patisserie. A man blows bubbles on the street. A woman arranges candles in her windowsill as she has a drink. The narrator doesn’t attach any importance to these moments, but they do feel important, even if it’s only the very act of observation. We are always being observed, and we are always observing. What we see can influence us and what we show can influence those around us, even if we never meet. This irresistible urge to record human behavior is all the more crucial in a heavily controlled environment. Life is ordinary, and the narrator wants to witness and bask in it. Like so many others do, the narrator values adventure, change, unpredictability, travel, art, and life. But it’s all that she sees in the ordinary strangers around her that matter enough to make them central to the book.
The narrator’s appreciation for the small things goes hand in hand with her perception of what other places are like. She describes these moments as things that could define a place, as well as humanity and the good still in it. In her mind, Venice is the place people sip cool pink wine among canals and ignore disturbances. New York City is where electricity, pigeons, and fire escapes are beautiful, where lovers smudge bricks with smoke and a taxi sparkles like a canary yellow diamond. Tokyo is where green tea and sake are served in nonmatching cups, in fact, where no two cups are the same. Color is what distinguishes so much in the book, and the vignettes focus on the individuality of color.
Near the end of the book, but early chronologically, the narrator shares that “life is not worthwhile unless it leads to something. You have to go somewhere.” Yes, she goes places but feels like she goes nowhere. She looks forward to dying, but by the end, she’s left wanting for more travel, color, creativity. We’re introduced to her at the end of her life, and then we retrace her steps in a hunt for meaning, in a quest to discover what it is that makes life worthwhile. Maybe it’s candles, maybe it’s a poem on a paint chip. Some days, it’s just the very act of living. The narrator sees beauty in impermanence, but on most days, she’s reluctant to be impermanent herself.
I can’t review this without thinking about George Orwell’s 1984. That Night Alive also reminds me of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a dystopia introduced so slowly that it never feels abnormal. You so gradually see what’s happening that by the time you understand the situation, you don’t feel strange for not feeling anything untoward about it. That’s the particularly bothersome thing about dystopian books for me. Sometimes they feel all too plausible, and I realize how easy it is to get societies comfortable with norms that really shouldn’t be norms.
The most uncomfortable personal norm in That Night Alive is how easily we acclimate to putting things off. The narrator begins by considering what she never accomplished but always wanted to: write a manuscript, write a perfect epitaph, read old books, visit Japan, visit Shelley’s grave in Rome, drink cafe au lait from a thick bowl. She won’t get the chance to do any of these things, or in a few cases, she won’t get the chance to do them again or on her own terms.
In a way, Deal compels the reader to think about their own list of things they would regret never getting the chance to do, or would regret missing out. I’ve heard my twenties are vital to my life, to the course it’ll take, and some people put a lot of pressure on my choices. But after this book, this time in my life feels less about finding a solid job and fitting into something than about visiting the places I ponder, about finishing the creative projects I’ve ignored but don’t want to anymore. The narrator gets a good job, and the reader knows this long before reading about her first getting hired. The job security was never a question, and neither was how much she did and didn’t get to do. With the story’s reverse chronology, the discovery process is more about how important these things are to her. The narrator’s employer tells her that revisions are limited, so she must “do it right the first time.”