The Short Version: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” So begins a series of “propositions” – short, often paragraph-or-two essays – exploring Nelson’s love: of the color blue, yes, but also, around the edges, of her friends, of words, and of a lover who broke her heart.
The Review: This is a book about curiosity. It is meant for the curious, for those who might think nothing of stopping mid-sentence to look up more details about an interesting fact or to exclaim to someone across the room that they’ve discovered something fascinating before returning to where they’d left off. This is not to say that less-curious readers will not enjoy or will feel left out; it’s simply to say that the curious will find a kindred spirit in Nelson.
“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color,” begins the book and it’s one of the most captivating of opening lines. Nelson’s first “proposition” – each broken up thought is numbered, from 1 to 240, and at one point near the end she dubs them “propositions” – immediately plunges the reader into something beautiful and strange new, like jumping into a perfect-temperature pool. Look:
Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
There is a magic at work here, a sort of alchemy that’s almost invisible to the eye. Fitting, for a work about color – something that is so widely perceived and yet so imperceptible. Think of Horace Bénédict de Saussure’s cyanometer, meant to give you a better way to measure the blue of the sky. What does it actually do? Very little, really – but it also quantifies something in a way that delivers not necessarily more knowledge but definitely some amount of contentment.
Which, come to think of it, is a good way to describe this slim volume. Nelson is writing at length about blue and the many ways it can be experienced. Think of something blue and it is mentioned: the sky, the sea, blueberries, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”, Picasso’s blue period… the only one I can think of that was missing, cultural-reference-wise, was Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” (although I can understand that that may be a purposeful thing). What need does anyone have to read a treatise on a color? Nelson herself mentions that there are books on color – and particularly blue – written every few years and that they all, to some extent, say the same thing: they attempt to put down into words something that inherently defies capture.
But Nelson isn’t writing something in the vein of Wittgenstein or Newton or Goethe – her writings have a distinctly more personal bent. These moments, often tinged with blue (as one might expect), bubble up as though the book is a pot of water coming slowly to a boil – although that implies a heat that isn’t to be found, really. But the lover, the one Nelson is in many ways addressing throughout the book, becomes more of a presence as the book goes on. At first, we are given teases about their sex life, but then there are hints of the larger relationship – the circumstances surrounding it, surrounding the breakup, as well as both of their lives before/after the relationship. And while Nelson steers clear of addressing these moments too directly, the book doesn’t ever feel like it shies away from the ‘memoir’ aspect of this particular writing experiment. There are few concrete details to be found about Nelson’s life, with moments often delivered in broad strokes or removed from their context – an old apartment, a thought in an old neighborhood, just enough of a sketch of a person or thing to allow her to get to the emotional truth as opposed to the narrative one – but she also reveals so much of her self, albeit indirectly. We’re experiencing how she thinks and is there a better way to discover someone than that?
Rating: 6 out of 5. A magical little tome, ostensibly exploring the color blue and all its varied meaning and permutations but actually revealing the author via how she encounters the color and said permutations. It’s not quite essays, not quite memoir, not quite poetry, not quite philosophy – but it’s a little of all of those things as well as being quite its own entity. Vividly rendered, mysterious, and enlightening – it is a book for the curious, but for those whose curiosity doesn’t necessarily need to be filled so much as entertained.