In the spirit of these connections, as I read the novel I found myself recalling, time and again, a line from one of Martin Heidegger’s letters to Hannah Arendt: “We never know what we can become for others through our Being,” writes Heidegger to the young Arendt at the height of their affair. The line resonates with the novel both in its romantic and philosophical connotations. In Being and Time, Heidegger grounds Being in the world of everyday objects, what he calls Umwelt, or environment. Being encompasses the physicality of our world, and consciousness of Being — the quality of Dasein — is what distinguishes mankind. For Heidegger, the human self is inseparable from the phenomenology of the everyday.
Sheck’s book is, in this sense, very physical, often evoking the fullness of Being. Characters experience the world in physical terms, through the weight of bodies plagued by different ailments. “I have felt the world touch me with its strange, unpredictable hand,” says the novel’s protagonist, Ambrose, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes his bones to break easily. Because of his condition, Ambrose is bound to the physicality of his Being through pain, and so this pain shapes his very essence. “If you could see me, what would you see?” he asks, and proceeds to describe himself:
A hunchbacked man in a frayed, camel-colored coat, his large balding head seeming to protrude from his chest. And if I tried to look into your eyes (but it is rare that I would try) you would see a face straining sidewise, as if struggling to lift itself out of some dark, viscous liquid. A face half-drowned and yet still breathing, twisting upward as if seeking some small, indiscernible speck in the distance. Something, maybe, it could love.
Ambrose’s very subjectivity is weighed down, stifled, caged — but also defined — by pain and brittle bones. “Inside my hump a bird has grown completely silent,” he writes, “its dark lidless eyes don’t understand why it’s not free.” Existence hurts in this book, and, like Ambrose, most of its characters desperately seek to pull away from the physicality of their lives, into another dimension.
Time proves to be one such dimension. If Being is immutably physical, time seems more malleable. Following the thought of Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky, whose “imaginary geometry” breaks through the space-time continuum, Ambrose begins to hear the voice of Frieda, a character from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet-era masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. Frieda was put on trial a century earlier for murdering her newborn, but Ambrose hears her voice during his travels to present-day Venice. There to fulfill the wish of a co-worker who suffers from an insomnia, Ambrose also experiences the Venice to which Sheck consigns Frieda — a plague-ridden city of the 16th century.
In Bulgakov’s novel, as part of her punishment in the afterlife, Frieda is forced to constantly see the handkerchief with which she suffocated her baby. And in Sheck’s novel, like Ambrose, she is weighed down with this physical burden, carrying the handkerchief in her heart, like an albatross around her neck. Moreover, everywhere she goes in plague-ridden Venice, she encounters the unbearable physical pain of others who are similarly punished by the thingness of the world.
As Ambrose implies at one point, although he directly lives with “one form of brokenness or another,” most people experience life “within a fracturing,” a material prison. This essential phenomenological imprisonment makes connection both difficult and all the more necessary. Ambrose looks for something that might help him break through his loneliness. He clings to Frieda, a ghost, but his inability to interact with her only further underscores the challenge of making a true connection. Although Ambrose and Frieda share a space, and although they provide obvious comfort to one another, there is nonetheless an unbridgeable divide between them. In this sense, Ambrose recreates with Frieda the same dynamic he had established with his co-worker, whose request sends him to Venice. The fact that he undertakes the journey suggests obvious emotional investment, but Ambrose never speaks to the woman as they work their menial jobs, digitizing books. When the co-worker reaches out to him, she does so by writing a letter, and the rest of their relationship develops strictly through correspondence.
“We never know what we can become for others through our Being,” Heidegger writes, suggesting the unpredictability, the indirectness of connection. Island of the Mad is a book about connection precisely because it is a book about isolation. There is no eroticism between Ambrose and his co-worker, just as there is no eroticism between him and Frieda. Sex, desire, or even the possibility of human touch, can be violent and violating. For the fragile subjectivities we encounter, connections to others must be limited, for fear the self will collapse altogether. Instead of joining in intercourse, characters connect to others as they would to literary personages. They hear each other’s voices, but never interject; they sense and empathize with each other, but never touch. One character, an epileptic patient in a sanatorium, reads Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to another one, who suffers from insomnia, and writes about it. Ambrose finds these writings and reads them — just as he reads his co-worker’s letters, and hears Frieda, as though she were reading to him. Characters find comfort in these gentle ties, these distant correspondences with another’s Being that do not necessitate able-bodied status.
Although Sheck doesn’t address social media, it’s hard not to think about our 21st-century connections while reading this book. The ghostly connections in Island of the Mad might as well be conducted over the internet. How many ties in our digital era are at a remove from our daily Being, either forged or perpetuated across digital networks? People turn into profile pictures, Facebook friends; we read each other’s posts, follow each other in silence. For many, these digital ties are easier to manage, less invasive. We can craft a different persona, and our fragile self can preserve its boundaries. And yet, the connections we form in the digital realm can turn on us — hate speech, cyber-bullying, fake news. Because they stem from careful, attentive reading of literature, the feeble connections in Sheck’s book are spared this violence, while exuding genuine empathy. Indeed, there is no better evidence for art’s capacity to foster connections than Sheck’s own warm and lyrical narrative.
Ani Kokobobo is assistant professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, where she teaches Russian literature and culture.