Book Review

“When you’re not in perfect balance,” Floyd Skloot writes in the introduction to Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir, “everything familiar is transformed. There’s a destabilizing of the self and its encounter with the world, a whirling of space and time.”

Skloot knows whirling: in 2009 he had a bout of extreme vertigo that lasted for 138 days. Imagine such disorienting dizziness that to stand upright is almost impossible; then add nonstop severe nausea, and last, try them simultaneously for four months. This ordeal alone earns our attention to Skloot’s life story, but using his poet’s instincts and his experience as memoirist and novelist, he weaves a more complex tale—or to put it properly, tales. Vertigo is omnipresent throughout the book in both its physical and psychological forms, not strictly as a condition, but as a thematic link between fourteen masterfully written essays.

As an experienced practitioner of memoir, Skloot knows that if we are going to encounter another person’s self, that self had better be engaging. Thus, though the book has a loose chronological order that begins in Skloot’s teens and ends in his sixties, he otherwise avoids the “and-then-this-happened” temporal plod. The title essay about vertigo is the collection’s thematic center, but rather than headlining the book, it occurs around the halfway point. And because it is no longer than the other essays, its brevity may also challenge expectations of a title piece. This suits a book whose existential concern is unpredictability—vertigo, in Skloot’s view, is not simply one episode of a life, but representative of life.

If Skloot had devoted the entire book to clinical vertigo, the demands of storytelling might have called for an injection of drama. Stories of illness often attempt this, but as someone who has long been ill, Skloot knows that affliction is not inherently dramatic. Rather it is complex, with room for fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, and drudgery, as well as humor, love, and contemplation. A narrow focus on drama in stories of illness risks contrivance, and Skloot is wise enough to avoid this.

The book’s essays therefore deal in the off-kilteredness of the subtitle, and the sudden displacement that life’s events can produce. The collection begins with “Some Things Nearly So, Others Nearly Not,” in which we meet Mildred Levine, a friend of Skloot’s late mother, who gives herself the lead in a community production of The King and I. “Mildred was a deeply disturbing King,” the book’s opening line, is a swiftly vertiginous drop into Skloot’s world, and introduces the ironic humor that characterizes much of his prose: the monarch is named Mildred, and she is highly disruptive.

Also subversive is “Senior Speech,” a vivid essay about overcoming Brooklynese, in which Skloot devotes as much ink to the instructor of his speech course as to his own linguistic struggles. And in a later piece when the collegiate Skloot’s stepfather gives him a car, it is no automotive moment of glory: “The Rambler was a stubby, tubular, two-door white sedan that made a lot of noise as it burrowed through traffic. . . . Above fifty miles an hour, the car began to tremble as though in fear of what might be asked of it next.”

In “The Bottom Shelf,” Skloot introduces his highly accomplished literary life in this fashion: “I love William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, I’ve just never been able to finish it.” The essay is subtitled “On Novels I Keep Trying and Failing to Read” and details Skloot’s habit of buying books like Sophie’s Choice or The Magic Mountain, only to founder, sell them, and repurchase them later for another try. This sympathetic essay may comfort guilt-plagued readers who have ever bailed on Thomas Mann or Boris Pasternak. Skloot follows this piece on jettisoned books with one on those that have proven essential to him, and while the title (“The Top Shelf”) meets expectations, the essay is no treatise on the classics but a coming-of-age tale in which Skloot discovers himself as a poet.

With his own poetry as epigraph—“The ear that hears wind chatter in cedar woods / listens also to the earth curve beneath your feet / It holds you in place as you move through a spinning world”—Skloot begins a section of gripping essays about his physically compromised but artistically fertile neurology. “The Side Effect of Side Effects,” about his initial disabling event years before his vertigo, describes that event not through symptoms, but attempts to treat them. This approach suits the book’s oblique tack, and offers deep insights into life with chronic illness. An affliction may have clinical particularities, but to explore side effects is to probe how we manage new quotidian difficulties. What can we no longer do as a result of illness and its treatments? Conversely, what compensations do we make that enrich life as we cope with disability? In pieces such as “Sway Me Smooth” and “Anniversary Fever,” Skloot answers those questions with relevance and originality. The former explores the sonic assault of an MRI scan, and Skloot’s chosen metaphor, popular music, is instructive in the difference between creative rendering of memoir and straight reportage of anecdote. The latter details his obsession with anniversaries, a fixation he explains as both a response to cognitive losses and a way to create pattern and structure from the ongoing diminishment of illness. He finds echoes of this in the poetic tradition, where “love and anniversaries of love’s touchstones have long possessed the power to stop time’s erosion.”

In a book that rarely loses its way, the only time I felt adrift, ironically, was during a piece about losing one’s way. The book’s penultimate essay is on the vexations of driving in England, and though entertaining, its travelogue tone does not match the gravitas of the other pieces. The disruption is minor, though, and the final essay closes the collection gracefully by returning to Skloot’s late mother, who figured in the opening piece. The discovery of an old recipe defamiliarizes Skloot’s sense of her, because she did not cook, and his upended recollections form a vertigo of retrospective. He parses memory as a netherworld between fact and revision, ending the book with a memorable and quirky comparison.

Skloot suffered bona fide vertigo in its extreme clinical form, but Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir suggests that the phenomenon is more than a medical matter. With the inquisitive approach of a scientist, the sensibility of a poet, and the humor of the resigned, Skloot presents vertigo as a metaphorical condition of humanity.

About the Reviewer

Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, MA. He has an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and his work has appeared in Salamander, the Boston Globe, SmokeLong Quarterly, Litro, and elsewhere.