Howard Axelrod – The Point of Vanishing [Review]

February 19, 2016


“Ne’er so well expressed”
A Review of 

The Point of Vanishing:
A Memoir of
Two Years in Solitude

Howard Axelrod

Paperback:  Beacon Press, 2015
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Emma Sleeth Davis
The Point of Vanishing may be a debut memoir, but author Howard Axelrod is far from an amateur writer.  He has honed his craft through years of elite study: at Harvard as an English major, in Italy on a Rockefeller Scholarship, at the University of Arizona with an MFA, as the recipient of over half a dozen writing residencies, as an occasional professor for several universities, and as a teacher for the creative writing center GrubStreet.  His prose is evocative, lyrical, and smooth, which keeps the partially nonlinear structure of the narrative moving despite the lack of conventional plot.

The bare facts of Axelrod’s memoir aren’t particularly gripping: as a junior in college, Axelrod is playing a game of pickup basketball when a friend accidentally gouges his optic nerve, leaving him half blind but still able to read, drive, and function normally.  He graduates, spends two years in Italy, road trips aimlessly around the United States, and ends up house-sitting for two years in rural Vermont.  His friends and family compare him to the subject of Into the Wild; although the extreme desire to be alone, shed his past, and find a deeper connection to nature may be the same, Axelrod’s “solitude in the wilderness” includes heat, running water, electricity, a phone, a car, and frozen pizza from the grocery store in town.

The real drama, instead, is largely self-inflicted.  Axelrod believes that after his eye injury an impassible emotional and existential gulf exists between himself and his friends and family. He has no interest in pursuing a traditional job after his accident: “all the career paths seemed invalid because they had to blind you from what was outside them, like a horse’s blinkers, so you kept trotting forward.  The lines of my life had dissolved, and I wasn’t about to sign up for new ones that were just as impermanent, just as likely to waver given a true test.”  In Italy, he has an affair with a girl even though he knows she has a boyfriend.  They break up, but he continues to keep up a lovelorn correspondence.  In Vermont, he fails to stock up sufficiently on non-perishables, and, when he gets snowed in, choses to half-starve rather than call the plowman.  One winter night when he gets a migraine he goes out for a walk, throws up, and then lets himself fall asleep lying in the snow.  Axelrod is also sometimes self-indulgent to the point of rudeness and beyond: he refuses to go to his grandmother’s eighty-fifth birthday, picks a fight with his best friend, contemplates having an affair with a teenager a decade younger than him, and acts so erratically that policemen are concerned on two separate occasions.

What Axelrod lacks in practicality and sometimes civility, he makes up for in poetry.  He spends his time in self-imposed solitude as a hermit—not in the modern sense of an unhinged recluse (although his family teases him about being a Unabomber), but similar to an early-church or Eastern mystic.  His quest to strip away all distractions and focus on the truly meaningful differs from a traditional hermit in one fundamental way, though: instead of seeking understanding and communion with God or gods, Axelrod is the embodiment of the often-professed but rarely-seen person who is “spiritual but not religious.” He finds meaning and sometimes, even, transcendence in diverse places: nature, self-awareness, dreams, asceticism, writing poetry, ritual, introspection, meditation.

Axelrod’s gift is in writing, in Alexander Pope’s words, what “oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” (he even accurately describes those moments when bits of poetry pop into one’s mind—and honestly, what English major hasn’t thought-quoted “The World is Too Much With Us”?).  He turns relatable experiences—the disassociation of going back to a childhood bedroom, seeing a parent in a new light, being overwhelmed by stimulation while shopping, falling in love—into beautiful, impeccably-worded moments.  Like a world-class ballerina, Axelrod uses his countless hours of practice pushing himself to his limits to create a seemingly organic and effortless performance.  No one can deny that he’s an artist in enviable control of his craft.

The appeal of The Point of Vanishing depends on the reader’s sympathy with the “tortured artist” personality.  If you tend toward a pragmatic worldview, this book will probably rub you the wrong way.  If you totally get why Van Gogh cut off his ear, this is going to be a new favorite.  If you’re somewhere in between, it’s worth reading for the beautiful prose—especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for the Northeast Kingdom—but you’re probably not going to be inspired to go out and follow in Axelrod’s snowshoe steps.