Let us begin at the ending, where I tell you that the final page of this book is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.
I’m not going to quote it here, because spoilers, but I want you to come into this essay knowing that if you read this book, and I hope you do, the ending will most likely make you cry, both because of the content and the sheer gorgeous writing. Téa Obreht’s Inland, a follow-up to her instant-classic The Tiger’s Wife, is a haunted Western. A frontier ghost story, it focuses on the kinds of people who don’t often get to star in tales of the Old West. It’s a funny, weird book, that has often, over the last few weeks, jumped into the front of my brain and demanded attention.
One of the cultural ideas that’s become more prevalent over the last few years is that life is moving too fast, and that, in some ways, we’re too connected now. That the human brain isn’t equipped to process the amount of information and emotion that is thrown at it every day. Over the course of a few minutes’ Twitter scrolling, you’ll learn about blizzards and typhoons decimating communities thousands of miles away, missing children, people who can’t afford health care, glaciers melting, rhinos dying, people who have been shot, robbed, threatened, koalas dying, entire swathes of earth frozen, or on fire. Uncontrollable plagues. You’ll learn about governments that make their citizens lives a hell, and camps, and coups, and atrocities in numbers unfathomable. All of it is right there in your hand, death and despair and so many people’s Worst Days.
To be a decent person in 2021 is to be in constant mourning for people you’ll never meet.
It’s easy to think that this is a new phenomenon, that the past was easier in this way—that there was A Time When Things Were Better. But I tend to distrust that narrative, just as I distrust the rote Hegelianism that demands that life inevitably gets “better” without hard work and revolution, or the idea that humans were ever anything other than horny gluttons who occasionally do great or terrible things. And I think people have always been aware of the pain of others, it’s just that it’s much easier to pull the shades down and curl up and hug your own problems and pain to your chest than it is to look out at someone else’s.
What Obreht has done in her second novel is show us two very different people: one who refuses to look beyond her own life, and one who has no choice but to see the pain of other people. And she drops us into a past that is teeming with ghosts, that refuses to allow anyone the comforting lie of A Simpler Time.
In mid-1800’s New York, a young Balkan immigrant loses his father to illness, and loses his father’s name, Hadziosman Djurić, to Americanization. The boy anglicizes his name into John Lurie, and ricochets from boarding house to apprenticeship to work farm before forming a small-time gang with some friends—the closest thing he’s had to a family in years. The Mattie Gang, named for the Mattie Brothers who informally adopt Lurie, never amount to much, but they do enough damage that Lurie ends up on the run from the law. Along the way he takes up with the Camel Corps, and…wait.
I’m guessing you’ve never heard of the Camel Corps?
Neither had I, but I’m incredibly glad I have now! If you’re on this site a lot, you may know Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo—a series of alternate history novellas and short stories about a fictional crew of hippo-riding outlaws-for-hire, based on a real plan to ship hippos from Africa to the Louisiana marshlands as a new source of meat. (This idea was never put into practice, presumably because some poor bastard actually attempted to wrangle a hippo.) However, the Camel Corps was a very real, if small, troupe of Middle Eastern men who came to the nascent U.S., with camels, and participated in the “taming of the West”. The idea being that camels don’t need much water, they can carry a ludicrous amount of weight, and they’d seem terrifying to Indigenous Americans who had never seen a camel before. Obreht winds this real history into her story of American outsiders. Lurie’s own ethnicity is blurry enough to white America that they cam look at him, assume he’s a ‘Turk’ and accept the sight of him on a camel. And this could have made for a great story, sure, but it wouldn’t necessarily be discussed on this site. Except that Lurie can see and speak with the dead.
But it’s more than that. While working as an apprentice graverobber (long story) he gets his first real understanding of his ‘gift’:
Once a great big fella got stuck halfway out his coffin. I sat there in the dirt with his pale arm on my knees until the Coachmen handed me a saw. I carried that arm all the way uptown, wrapped in its own burlap sleeve, on my shoulder like a ham. Some evenings later, I saw that same rent sleeve on. a one-armed giant who stood unmoving in the fishmarket crowd. He was pale and round and stood smiling shyly at me, as though we were old friends. He drifted closer, hugging that empty sleeve, till he stood by my side. It seems an dd thing to say, but a thin tickle spread around me, and I knew he’d put his ghost arm about my shoulders. That was the I ever got this strange feeling at the edges of myself—this want. He let forth a rueful sigh. As if we’d been talking all the while. “God,” he said. “God I’ve an awful hunger. I’d love a nice cod pie. Wouldn’t you, little boss?”
“Fuck you,” said I, and fled.
From that moment Lurie’s hunger is constant, insatiable. This is how he learns of the other side of his gift. He can see the dead, he can speak with them—but if he gets too close their terrible human want will infect him, and he will carry it with him, their agent among the living, trying to ease a desire that can never end. (This reminded me a bit of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, if those liminal souls had been able to pass their last wishes on to people who visited their graves.)
The closer he is with someone the worse it is. One dead friend’s magpie nature turns him into an unwilling pickpocket, another forces him to sip water continuously—a hard road to walk when you and your camel are meant to be exploring the desert. But then it seems that when he drinks water on behalf of his friend, it begins to have an almost mystical property:
This led me to wonder after want itself—was I permitted any of my own? Must I now forever fill up with the wants of any dead who touched me, all who’d come before me? I knew little, and now know even less, save that every now and again, if I closed my eyes while drinking, a vision might surprise me. Most of the time it went so quick I could hardly catch the detailsDonavan’s face or Hobb’s, or an old feeling I recognized. But then, too, unfamiliar sights: a particular evening, a particular woman, a snowbound street. A girl crumpled by the water’s edge. Well, it’s clear now what they were. But it made me uneasy in them days, never knowing if I’d been shown what was, or what might be, or what never could be.
Myself I had only one want: to continue on with the Camel Corps as guest and wayfarer for all time; or, failing that, to cease wanting to.
The needs of the dead drive him all the way across the country, and introduce readers to a very different version of The Old West than the one Johns Ford and Wayne gave us: here there are well-educated geologists, Black cowboys, Muslims, tough women, and men who are only too happy to talk about their feelings. As Lurie travels he’s filled with awe for each new terrain he crosses, and his connection to the dead seems to open him to moments of pure mysticism that illuminate otherwise ordinary events. An unsuccessful attempt at fishing on the Pecos River instead reveals that the river itself has memories, and some form of consciousness, just like the humans whose ghosts Lurie sees every day:
The sun edged higher, mirrored in blinding bolts on the water, but all I caught was some of the Pecos’s brackish soul, which showed me a steamship and the dimlit streets of some town I’d never seen. All day, the river yielded no further life.
His story, which unfolds over decades, loops around a single day in the life of Nora Lark.
Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory, is facing a long day on her drought-ridden farm. Her youngest son is still reeling from the eye injury that nearly blinded him; her husband still isn’t back with the water he promised to find them; her two elder boys are convinced that their father is in danger; her husband’s niece insists on talking about a Beast that stalks their land at night. It’s a lot. And under her terrible thirst, and the fear that her family might not make it this time, is the pressure from the two different men who are pressuring her to sell the family printing press and pull up stakes. Wouldn’t it be more sensible, finally, to give up? Flee to a land with more water? But how can she abandon her home, with no word from her husband?
Nora’s chapters unfurl largely as a rattling inner monologue—or to be more accurate a dialogue. We follow her as she rides into town, visits a neighbor, and fields the unwanted intrusions from various men who are determined to own the town’s press, but here again, her internal musing is structured as a conversation with her only daughter, who died as a baby, and, just as with Lurie, her daughter replies. The girl has grown up a ghost, mirroring her mother’s own corrosive wit, which soothes Nora into believing that she’s providing both sides of the conversation. But what if she isn’t?
One of the novel’s many strengths is the way it subverts tropes to look at people who were often ignored by the mythology of The Old West—rather than white cowboys, we get Black and Middle Eastern cowboys, some of whom ride camels rather than horses, and some of whom have to find ways to practice Islam under a hostile Protestant gaze. Rather than a ranching family, Obreht gives us the independent wife of a progressive, pioneering newspaperman, and through her we meet the network of tough women who made her town, and the violent men who want to take all the credit. But most of all, Inland is a different kind of ghost story, one that prioritizes mourning and memory over easy scares. It’s a fantastic example of the way “genre” elements can enrich “literary” fiction when they’re taken seriously—though to be honest I don’t think Obreht would even make such a distinction. She’s telling a story with the best tools to tell it, and those tools happen to be ghosts.
And, look. This year has been so full of death. Washed in grief. And the only way we can, maybe, begin to process it is through art. Art is the tool we have to heal and rebuild ourselves, to make sense of the chaos of being alive and conscious. And while this book was written before the pandemic, the space Obreht makes for the reality of grief, the way you simply have to move through it, speaks to the pain of waking up in this reality each day. Her insistence on the importance of memory and love make reading the book a healing experience.