The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert
Black Ocean, 2013; 83 pp
Reviewed by Gwendolyn Edward


Near the beginning of the book Gabbert writes, “Memory comes first, then identity shortly after….One day in my 20s, sitting in a cold car, I realized the self is universal, there is only one I—again, the thought arrives, but no longer seems profound.” However, this nonfiction collection is both philosophical and weighty. Many times in the reading I felt I could only manage one entry at a time; a single page asks more of me as a reader than many of the traditional narratives or essays I encounter. It is rare to find a book that occupies me as much as The Self Unstable does. In this nonfiction collection of loosely connected lyrical fragments rarely longer than a paragraph, Elisa Gabbert’s observations, concise language, and complex questions about life and perception are unexpected and unquestionably inviting.

Through six sections Gabbert wonders at and defines her being through study regarding animal and human behavior; the associations she makes are often startling and refreshing. Linear structure is unnecessary and eschewed and her use of first, second and third person in her explorations always feel personal. Though the sections often harbor highly individualized experiences, there is a component of community as well. The sections are a vibrant marriage between linguistics, scientific inquiry, and personal essay, peppered with humor that probes more serious questions. Heavily focused upon sensory experience and engaging the questions of existence and meaning, The Self Unstable is a must read for those looking for less traditional form and more crisp meditation.