FOG IS A CLICHÉD METAPHOR for memory, part of the collective imagination. But don’t clichés come from truth, after all? In his debut memoir, Kyle Boelte sits in the San Francisco fog and tries to define the metaphor’s true meaning. His brother committed suicide as a teen, and The Beautiful Unseen is Boelte’s controlled, meditative attempt to access his memories of Kris some decades later. He comes to see what makes fog so alluring, why so many people live inside the gloom, how it works to express the ineffable.
Boelte meanders through labyrinthine streets, up hills and down into fog-dense valleys. He details multiple hikes to find the edges of fog. What differentiates The Beautiful Unseen from other memoirs about walking (for instance, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust) or grief (say, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking) is this weather. Boelte explores fog as a phenomenon — physically, personally, and historically — revealing its scientific properties as they affect us inside and out. His literal zigzagging works well with his disjointed narrative style: he intersperses chapters about his brother with research and other found documents — bits of science from guidebooks, a death certificate, the lyrics of a song — folding these elements into the narrative, mirroring the way our minds actually work. In examining his own difficulty with recall — remembering one thing only to forget another — Boelte speaks to the figures writers have employed throughout history. “Many metaphors have been used to describe memory,” he says.
The metaphors change with the dominant technologies of the day. […] Plato wrote of memory as a wax tablet, where impressions are made. […] Socrates also suggested that memory is like an aviary, where memories are birds flying about. Later, Augustine wrote of a treasure house… In the Middle Ages, memory became a library. For Cartesians, it was a calculating machine. For Romantics, it was a labyrinth or a giant loom. In the 19th century, memory was a switchboard, a phonograph, a camera. In the 20th century, memory became the computer […]
But no matter which metaphor we choose, humans are compelled to look to the past, and each of us has lived through something we wish we could recall better than we do. Boelte’s hard on himself, but he’s no different: he remembers weird, insignificant minutiae of the days surrounding his brother’s death, though he’s forgotten large chunks of time since. Because his life was split along such a certain and macabre line, he perceives his loss of memory as a secondary tragedy, one that makes the primary grief even harder to bear. When friends remind him of stories, odd events that happened before his brother died, he is often incredulous, as much about his inability to remember as about the accounts themselves. By examining his limitations so frankly, and through the language of the great thinkers, Boelte evokes our collective sense of forgetting. He makes it clear that not remembering is, in some ways, what ties us to each other.
On his walks, Boelte literally weaves in and out of the clouds. The landscape glows throughout the book — Boelte shows the city for its flaws, its history, and the quirky beauty that anyone with a soft spot for San Francisco will recognize warmly. And his descriptions of the fog are elegant and lithe. On a walk near an urban park during a solar eclipse, he looks toward the ocean and muses:
The fog is making its way out of the Sunset, toward Bernal Hill. The eclipse has summoned it, conjured it, brought it to life in the Outer Lands. It swirls and tumbles and breathes its mist on the back of our necks.
At once he is able to convey the fragility and viciousness of a deep San Francisco fog; it invades both his city and his mind. “I’m walking on the edge of the fog line,” he says, in pursuit of the murk’s origin and its end. That line becomes his focus, his way to work through his blurry memories. “Trying to remember is often a good way not to remember,” he writes. But he doesn’t only want to remember — he wants to understand, to be inside the why of not remembering.
There are multiple lines of thought entwined in The Beautiful Unseen, including one about historical victims of fog, particularly those on the SS City of Rio de Janeiro, a ship that exemplifies the plight of many that ran aground just outside the Golden Gate. Fog becomes tangled with the idea of exploration, as in the tale of San Francisco’s fumbled discovery after Sir Francis Drake bypassed it completely in the fog. Fog, San Francisco, and memory swirl in and out of each of Boelte’s stories. What comes through in the narrative weave is the connection between his doomed memory and his brother’s doomed life. He struggles to understand both, trying on the stories of others before ultimately returning to his own great loss.
Boelte’s relationship with his brother’s death is contradictory: it shapes his relationship with his parents, his adult interactions, and his sense of identity. Yet he can’t remember Kris — not well enough to satisfy the yearning he feels again and again. He defines himself in terms of his shortcomings: he is because of what he is not. He is not one of two brothers. He is not the one who died. He is not able to find what he is looking for in the fog. Occasionally, he relays anecdotes his friends have told him of about Kris, but the reader feels his discomfort in the retelling. Boelte doesn’t truly trust these other memories, but neither does he trust his own. Nonetheless, his struggle to make himself believe is compelling. And the details of his forgetting are affectingly vivid: “I forget the voice but never forget the day I lost it,” he says.
Often in The Beautiful Unseen, an interaction with someone new, someone who does not know about Kris (or his suicide), precipitates a period of self-reckoning. When Boelte meets his wife, he tells her,
I think about Kris often. The grief is usually associated with stories or books or movies, I said, not dates. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere, when I’m walking down and empty beach, when I’m watching a movie, when I’m listening to a friend talk about something unrelated. He remains a big part of my life, I told her, though his death has become less of a struggle than it once was, his life more simply a part of who I am.
I did not mention how much I have forgotten. I did not mention how I feel when I am home alone at night.
Near the end of the book, Boelte even begins to question that which he does confidently recall, raising issues about how we choose to preserve moments in a digital age. In recording our experience, we perhaps surrender our only hope of truly remembering what has happened to us. In some cases, our photos and movies become more real than our recollections of what actually occurred. Boelte writes,
I remember the Christmases just as I remember the Christmas scenes from our family movies. They mix together, the memories of what happened and the memories of watching video of what happened. One no more real than the other.
And a bit earlier: “I’m not sure chasing the fog makes any sense,” he laments. “What do I hope to accomplish? Besides, I’ve tried chasing after it, and chasing doesn’t seem to work.”
His inclusion of a blank chapter, seven clean pages that comprise Chapter 42, is both homage to the obliterating whiteness of fog, and an admission of the failings of language itself.
Back in Chapter 16, in Bernal Heights with his wife in the middle of that eclipse, Boelte admits,
Like a child, I want to look up at the sun. I want to see the eclipse with my naked eyes. To experience it directly, rather than its shadow cast upon the wall, the ground. I do not look up at it. We keep walking.
Similarly, he wants to experience the fog directly. Yet he can’t really get to it — there’s no capturing the gray, low-hanging gloom — at least not in a way he can describe beyond a cloud he sees from afar, or a sensation on his skin. But though the author wanders, the reader never gets lost. Boelte’s sure-footed prose makes The Beautiful Unseen a lovely journey. And a moving one. Though he longs to know his brother’s story — and provides details and documents of his attempt to understand — it’s his obsession with and reverence for the gray weather of San Francisco, a bustling metropolis perched on the edge of a shaking world, that mesmerizes us. And it’s when he comes to terms with his longing that he bonds most closely with Kris, about whose last moments he writes, “He yearns for the unseen.”