By: Liam Durcan
Length: 254 pages
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press (March, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
This is a complex book based on a very simple plot line. An architect, Martin, who has been in a serious traffic accident suffers from long term neurological damage affecting his ability to process visual information. Martin leaves the hospital with his formerly estranged older brother, hoping to regain his prominent career, but at the end of the book he is still struggling to manage even daily self-care. The humble events that make up the plot manage to encompass many great issues — neglect of family relationships, aging, compassion, reconciliation, vision, aesthetics, even the stifled career of a Soviet architect — but most of all, they are a meditation on the limits of personal power. Slowly, quietly, inexorably, Durcan makes clear just how profound those limits are and that they are imposed both from within and without.
From the beginning Martin is aware that his own hopes for rehabilitation are much more optimistic than his doctors’.
He was unrealistic; he was in denial. He could walk, though; didn’t that
count for something? How many others could claim to have walked out
of the Dunes? His wing of the Dunes hosted residents whose stories hadn’t
allowed them to come this far, shrieking, tremulous young men who’d lost
their footing on a rooftop or whose motorcycle had found that
infamous dream-ending, dream-beginning patch of wet pavement. Bed to bath, bath to chair, chair to bed. He could hear their lives triangulated in these short
voyages, in the grunts and groans of the orderlies, whose efforts they
needed to move at all. But that wasn’t his life. That wasn’t him.
When he meets with his former partners from the firm he had founded, he realizes that one partner’s smiling reassurances mean that he is now “the asshole client” that she is manipulating while the other partner has become noticeably more relaxed and confident because he had needed “only the leveling effects of brain trauma for it to be a fair fight.” The world that Martin had built for himself before his injury is not a kind or welcoming place. In fact, the only real kindness he receives is from the brother he hasn’t spoken to in decades and who doesn’t much like him. Good luck, in other words, is also possible, as he accepts the unearned grace of a sibling who has a strong nurturing bent and is at a crossroads in his own life.
The Measure of Darkness shifts to this brother Brendan’s point of view, allowing insight that Martin wouldn’t have been capable of and giving the reader a welcome escape from Martin’s limitations. Brendan, however, has his own life to assess, and the effort of caring for his crippled and irritable brother brings him into greater awareness of his own shortcomings. It is Brendan who probes the question of whether character flaws are inborn or chosen over time as he becomes increasingly aware of the hidden similarities that he and Martin share.
Together the two brothers also paint a picture of Martin’s strange visual deficits. We see a small part of the world, for example, a deck on a lake house, through Martin’s eyes as he moves awkwardly across it, and then we see Martin himself as his brother watches his stumbling progress. Like so much of life, these deficits are always present and yet they seem to disappear and re-emerge. One moment Martin is talking with his brother during the drive, the next he is wondering why the grey sky is taking up so much of the horizon, only to puzzle out the fact that he is seeing the aluminum side of a truck that is traveling at the same speed.
For all that is explored in this book, it is Martin’s loss of his ability to control the visual world that is most important. He returns again and again to his old idol, the Soviet architect Melnikov whose career was destroyed by Stalin. The beauty of Melnikov’s thoughts, the tragic frustrations of his life, and the apparent passivity in which he must endure form a triangulation of their own. It’s one that Martin attempts to understand as he takes up the old man’s question of the meaning of despair and the possibility of acceptance.