By Jefferson Navicky
That’s the question I was sitting with when I read Julian Mithra’s astoundingly eclectic work of hybrid fiction, Unearthingly. Is a book more like an archive, or more like a hole? In the end, I couldn’t decide, so I wrote a dual review.
I. Book as Archive
Unearthingly is described as an “imaginary” archive, which serves to suggest that archives are usually not imaginary; they are repositories of fact, documents, and in this case, reports, textbooks, and surveys. However, anyone who has spent time in archives could say all archives are imaginary; Unearthingly only serves to highlight this fact. Archives can feel like the tangible evidence of history, but before long, one realizes that a more apt analogy is that archives display small islands of information amidst a sea of the unknown. We only get little blips of history, and from those blips, we form narratives. And sometimes, the more we examine the blips, the more we begin to doubt history’s confidence.
“You are not alone in your lostness,” Mithra writes in commiseration through the voice of Edward Bickers’s “A Field Guide to Prospecting.” And thus, Mithra as writer places themselves on the side of the reader, and it’s almost as if we all experience the wonder of this dizzying array of documents together. And what an array of documents it is! One of the true joys of this book is how much it fucks with us. This good-natured fuckery often takes the form of the presentation of a seemingly, or at times, believable document from the late 19th or early 20th century history of mining in, for example, Colorado. Some of these documents, such as “Collection #5836 from the 1934 Schneider Auction House,” sing with verisimilitude and sent me diving repeatedly into the dictionary to look up such obscure terms as “groseille” (a red currant color) or “ruching” (to gather, ruffle, or pleat) or “humectant” (preserving moisture”) or “gimp scrolling” (never did find out that one). Yet also, these documents end up being delightfully confounding, such as The Bureau of American Ethnology purportedly written by Harold P. Wallace in 1912. The end of this report, which is difficult to excerpt, reads:
builders who developed an autochthonous style dependent on intercourse with nomads of the plains and the sedentary tribes of the canons and once they were cut-off from the symbolic opening to the underworld, caves, both natural and artificial, would function vertically through extensive excavations of recent years bringing to light chambers, nearly circular, from which every word, spoken on the brink, re-echoes with distinctiveness.
Whoa. My margin notes read: “Very trippy, Harry. Very trippy.”
My favorite of such occurrences ends “Cheeky & the Saddlebag,” which follows Cheeky, the closest thing we have to a protagonist, as she dumps her satchel full of many things before the piece returns to Mama, who “was trapped like a seed blown into a daub of sap. It looked pretty hanging in the window, but.” There is something profoundly beautiful in such a stark and abrupt end. It makes you both wonder what you’re missing, and also long for such lost information.
The archive is seemingly concrete, but the information is fluid. Harold P. Wallace writes again in 1911 in “An Archeology of Scent:” “Back in Boston, a museum will combobulate the stony bone in a case complete with effable label.” Sometimes a word conjures its opposite. It is Mithra’s gift to make the past into a kind of liquid. It is not so solid. The past shimmers.
II. Book as Hole
You could say all books are holes. As writers, we dump our obsessions into that hole while trying to excavate its secrets. In Unearthingly, Julian Mithra has written a book that is a sustained meditation on the hole, what we have done to it, and what it was done to us. There is essential tension in a book about mining—always going down into the dark; always the threat of a shaft collapse; always the sense that this is an underground world and we shouldn’t stay here long.
“Shaft: the vertical passage connects fresh air with stale; light with dark. Eject the abject. Reject the subject.”—from “The Parts of a Mine” Appendix A, An Introduction to Mining
And so the boundaries are drawn between light and dark, good and evil, the powerful and the not; the wealthy and the not; the ones who belong here and the ones, according to some, who do not (in this book, also called the “cheddars”). This tension animates every page.
All of this is set within the dramatic backdrop of the mountains, who “laugh at coin, showing their teeth. A place a man can howl. Where snow burns and chiggers bited, where fire smokes and blood spurts, the miner climbs into the mountain’s umbratic arms” (from one of my favorite pieces, “Flash-in-the-Pan and Flinder Mouse”). It’s all universal and timeless, and it’s all quite thrilling in Mithra’s capable hands.
And all this holey work and suffering for what? Gold, of course. Both actual and metaphorical. The search for such shininess takes a toll on us all. And no one in Unearthingly is spared this suffering, not even Callista, a grizzly she-bear, who didn’t know she was named “after a constellation free of smoke.” Yes, by the end of the piece, gold gets to her too: “Gold galloped through the gulley. Gold gagged her gullet. Gold gutted her gland. Gold gouged her gab. Gold gobbled her growl. Encased in grief, she hibernated past the spring melt and slept onward through the man-season.”
These days, don’t we all know this grief, and aren’t we all encased in it? And oh the dream of sleeping on through the man-season to wake into…what?
If Mithra gives us an answer, it might come in another of my favorite pieces, “Porfiriana,” named after a magical and wise snail whose real name is unpronounceable in our alphabet. Where do we wake?
“A Great Hole shed darkness upon its plain and shot darkness into its valleys…”
In the shadow of a Great Hole, of course.
Jefferson Navicky is the author of Antique Densities: Modern Parables & Other Experiments in Short Prose, which won the 2022 Maine Literary Book Award for Poetry, as well as two other hybrid works. His book reviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Florida Review, The Maine Review, and Rain Taxi. He is the archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection.