Book Review: How to Adjust to the Dark by Rebecca van Laer
Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews How to Adjust to the Dark by Rebecca van Laer. (Long Day Press)
There are between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, according to a 2013 Forbes article. In the nearly ten years that have passed since this article came out, I have to imagine that number has climbed even higher with self-publishing’s consistent roll and small presses garnering bigger followings.
My point is not meant to discourage or depress writers (which, I admit, I had flashes of both those emotions when I saw that 1,000,000 number)—no, the point is that there is truly something out there for everyone. I don’t care what subset of entertainment you’re looking for, there’s a book for you.
Books are meant to be empathy builders and create connections to both a larger world and smaller, intimate personal moments. Basically, they’re here to make us feel less alone. Rebecca van Laer’s new novella, How to Adjust to the Dark, does a fantastic job of showcasing the power of finding those connections in literature.
Charlotte is a young college student who drifts from one relationship to the next. She’s looking for true love, but she’s also willing to compromise her own dreams and autonomy if it means a man will love her in return (as if that’s true love). At the beginning, even if the relationship makes her miserable, she’ll follow through because that’s what she thinks she wants.
While we see her struggling through depression and shitty relationships, we also see her poems in progress. She’ll show us a poem, and then proceed to deconstruct it, explaining her creative choices. In addition to this inside look at her composition, we also get insights into the works that have directly influenced her life. She’s making connections to pieces of writing that further connect us to her story.
This is the aspect of the novella that prompted the opening of this review. Through Charlotte, Laer is showing us the power and importance of literature while also entering her own piece of writing that is itself powerful and important.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Death Throes of a Behemoth
- The Silent Movie Tribute What? Has a Higher Purpose
- Life Is a Mystery: Good Shots Too Rare
The connections Charlotte makes to literature reinforce and expand on how she’s feeling in her depression, love, and life at each specific moment. I think that’s one of the most important aspects of art in general: it gives words to the wordless. There are many times in my life where I felt alone in my feelings but then read or watched something that showed me I wasn’t. I was not the first to experience whatever emotion I was struggling with. That act of solidarity, even remotely through art, was enough to help me through those moments. They made me feel less afraid and aided in the healing process. Charlotte ties her situation back to literature and uses stories and poems as her own guiding light, which could be a good thing or a bad thing—that’s the complexity of this story.
The approach of tying this character’s emotional journey back to classic and contemporary works of literature runs the risk of breaking the voice. Essentially, we move from poems to analysis to narrative to critical thinking, and all along the way I am waiting for the presentation to break, but Laer keeps the voice consistent. It’s always Charlotte talking and thinking, and that, in itself, is impressive. This is a singular character offering an array of thoughts on the world, whether that means the action of her day-to-day, the retrospective thoughts on things that had happened, or analyzing existing books and poems.
How to Adjust to the Dark is a raw book. It feels very much like someone’s diary as they’re working through their own emotions. There are moments when it felt like I was transgressing simply by reading someone’s secrets when I shouldn’t—as if I snuck into Laer’s room and stole her diary for my own entertainment.
How to Adjust to the Dark is a raw book. It feels very much like someone’s diary as they’re working through their own emotions. There are moments when it felt like I was transgressing simply by reading someone’s secrets when I shouldn’t—as if I snuck into Laer’s room and stole her diary for my own entertainment. It wasn’t something meant for me to read; this wasn’t meant for anyone to read. It’s staggering to hold something so raw and real in our hands. At first, I assumed it was auto-fiction, but the further into the book I got the more I realized it was just Rebecca van Laer being brilliant.
This is a brief and brisk book, but it packs a punch. I continually found myself encouraging Charlotte one minute, and then shaking my head in frustration the next. That’s to say, again, how authentic this book feels. And it really is a feeling. I had a hard time articulating my thoughts because How to Adjust to the Dark relies on manipulating how we perceive someone’s essence and ultimately how that makes us feel. It doesn’t just sound like a reflection of life, but it’s a festering chunk of emotion from a life we get to hold in our hands and flip the pages from one thought to the next.