The Center Cannot Hold: Elisa Gabbert’s “The Self Unstable”


What is this book? I have read it cover to cover, gone over passages several times, underlined, annotated, and yet I am still unsure how to classify it. The back classifies it as essay/literature, but the back also states that it is worth $14.95, so clearly this means nothing (there is nothing so grotesque as a price-tag on a book). In terms of classification essay may strike closest to the mark, while still falling short. It is a short book, in length, a brisk 83 pages, divided into five sections. Each section is compromised of paragraph length aphorisms, seemingly dealing with the topic of the section it falls under, some of these links seem tenuous at best. Each one engages you though. As I read through, a line, a whole paragraph, a whole chapter, would strike a chord of recognition. There is a sentiment expressed throughout William Gaddis’ Agape Agape, something akin to, “you plagiarized my ideas before I wrote them down.” I got this sense while reading this book. Gabbert gives a clear voice to what has only been a mumbling in my own mind. What else can you ask from a work of art, than to clarify what has been out of focus. Almost like a pair of prescription lenses, she makes the corners of the world a little less blurry, and like a pair of glasses, I would prescribe this book to all of us bumping around in our own nearsightedness.


As indicated by the title this is a work that is interested in the concept of the self. At a glance that lofty goal could seem boringly academic and tedious (one of the blurbs references Lacan for godsakes!). However, whether through the form of the book, or the razor sharp writing, this is a book that hold and often demands your attention. Each sentence, paragraph, chapter, builds and builds, until it washes over you with the beauty of recognition and illumination. And humor. A quote:

“A visitor from the past would look around and mainly see an absences of hats. The primary function of fashion is to signal in-group conformism.”

The self Gabbert is exploring is not just the “I” you see in the mirror, or hear in your head. It is the cultural construct. The self that exists in interaction with the society we live in now, the things the “self” creates: art, games, fashion, memories, “society, man”. This is a short book whose page length belies its depth and breadth.

“The future isn’t anywhere, so we can never get there. We can only disappear.”

Only the present exists for the self, for ourselves. The past is a ghost, the future a dream. We cannot attain the future, it is the vanishing point on the horizon, the carrot at the end of the stick, except in this scenario the cart never stops, or rather, we never get to eat the carrot. When you are a child you marvel at how big everyone is, when you grow old you miss the marvel of being small.

I think one of the keys to this works success is that the recognition of a truth in a sentence has a revelatory nature. Gabbert may as well of ended each paragraph in ellipses, because even after you finish reading your mind continues to make connections. Like an advanced game of connect-the-dots, you leap from point to point forming a larger picture in your mind. I don’t believe this would have been possible if all of these paragraphs were crushed together. The blank space on each page is for you. Gabbert is as concerned with answering questions as asking them. You may read a passage and have a moment of insight, but undercutting that is a larger question, a wider world. An example:

“Art, over time, makes a crude kind of progress, but toward what end? Art may improve our quality of life, but better art does not improve it more.”

By that logic does terrible art not degrade our quality of life? Is there such a thing as terrible art; if it is terrible does it even function as art? This line of thinking links back to many of the criticisms of modern art. One cannot help but think some aspects of modern art are an elaborate joke that has gone on for too long. What was once an inside joke is now accepted by everyone, and available for purchase on If you place a can of Campbell’s on your mantel can you call it a homage to Warhol? As Gabbert says, “we want it to be art, so we redefine art.” What better illustration for the march of time than the reclassification of things, the redefining of words. We shape things into what we want, or need them to be, including ourselves. Our methods of coping are to change the parameters of what we face. Battle fatigue becomes PTSD, and the world goes on spinning.

In attempting to (although I am not sure this was much of attempt) review The Self Unstable, I find myself, instead, falling down a rabbit hole of Miss Gabbert’s construction. And there appears to be no way out. What is this book?

“If life has any meaning, it comes at the end.”


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