Mark Gluth's The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis is a short novel with a fractured narrative structure, but it is also a complete and awe-inspiring text, offering an acute and moving portrayal of grief's powers. Opening with a disquieting scene about the reclusive writer of the title, as she is working on her final story, the book sets the stage for what it then becomes: an enchanted network of artists, tragedies, reveries, and mise-en-abymes built from a raging desire to rewrite mortality. Each page evokes the traumatic nature of loss and the stunning fact that life goes on when others die. But for all its melancholy, there is a balance achieved through the commingling of death with dreams and the comforts of—or at least the necessity for—artistic expression.
Gluth opens the second chapter with a epigraph by Spencer Krug of the band Sunset Rubdown: "I'm sorry anybody dies." This becomes a mantra for the book's characters, each of whom defies death or attempts to do so by creating art. From Kroftis's secluded existence on a Northwest island, the book moves to a teenage wasteland of angst, sex, and pubescent inspiration in which the love-struck high-schooler Beth seeks to memorialize Kroftis (who has died) by adapting her work for the screen. When tragedy strikes even closer, Beth experiences firsthand the pain of living in abstract memoriam to the dead: "…I wrote, then rewrote, a paragraph in my story. It was my dream. The narrator was a witch. She had dreams about undoing the spell that trapped her. She used a pen knife to carve a circle into the wall. She climbed through it and floated in space. Everything was a ghost of something else."
From there, the book's disparate story lines begin to intertwine and echo one another in peculiar ways. Interactions read as if they're incarnations of previous events in the story. We find Beth, married, experiencing the loss of a recently made friend. Following that, the friend's grieving mother and father move to a remote island. As the work shifts from one hard episode to the next, the book's adherence to chronological storytelling disappears. A lesser author would err with this approach, but Gluth's writing is tactile, brisk, and immediate; its traumatic moments don't disorient so much as lend the writing a deep and clear emotional resonance.
By closely observing his characters' struggles with mortality, Gluth convincingly presents mourning as both a trap and the horrible secret to artistic release. In such a framework, conclusions are never a given, but a dim hope in the urge toward creation shines on.
Meghan Roe is a freelance writer and editor based in Queens. She is also co-director of Parts and Labor Gallery, a mobile art space housed in a renovated box truck.