(Seattle, WA: Entre Ríos Books, 2020)
Orange, by E. Briskin, is a collection of segmented prose about the death of a grieving narrator’s dog. Along with the jolting theme, the form that Orange takes is just as peculiar. The stream-of-conscious narrative is displayed in numerically disordered blocks of thought, many times in the form of observational one-liners. The nameless narrator’s thoughts are consumed by the memories and consciousness (or lack thereof) of their late canine companion. Despite the heavy subject at hand, Orange also highlights the humor in grief, even when it’s not apparent.
It is difficult to discuss Orange without breaking down the symbolism of dogs. Often associated with loyalty, a sense of guidance, a protective comrade, faithfulness, alertness, and ultimately love, it’s easy for the reader to ask if the narrator is spiraling since they seem to have lost these elements. The most compelling aspect of Orange is the air of mystery that leaves room to question if the dog ever really existed, or if it’s just a manic fixation of the narrator going through something…else. Was there ever a dog? In many ways, the narrator seems to be going through some sort of dissolution, that they are simply calling their dog. This is illustrated by the comically brief statement “All of us need someone to be our dog”.
In several instances, Orange’s diffused approach to a dead dog addresses the death of what dogs symbolize and illuminate how dispersed our own cognitions can be. It also represents a reality that thoughts, especially in loss, don’t happen in order, but in tendrils that surround a central point. This is apparent in passages like this:
My dog died today.
It was unexpected.
One hour it was barking then it stopped.
I am used to having something this size
in my house
disturbing my sleep.
I have books and a speaker blankets
bones on the door.
Why can’t things keep going as they were?
and in fleeting associations to dogs like “a sleeve, a rope.” The cadence of Briskin’s narrator is a glimpse into a relievingly relatable train of thought and has the potential to lead readers to meditate on their own introspections in times of loss.
Orange contains many elements of Animal Behavioral Science, with its ruminations on what a dog may think, it’s general state of happiness and awareness of the outside world. Briskin ponders what we think about “other” forms of consciousness, how much smarter or less intelligent, what dogs like, and the neurological nature of dogs in general, but particularly their dog. Another stand out feature of Orange are footnotes punctuating many of the pages where deliberations attributed to grief are supported by scholarly research and literary works. The narrator is frequently asking themselves about what a dog could or would do, what types of books it would read, and what it observes with references. Additionally, the narrator often considers what a dog knows, “He knew the treats came from a pocket, and a pocket doesn’t have to walk three miles to exist…a refusal to walk towards the absence of the present itself?” It is within these statements that we, as humans, are not the only ones able to develop logic.
A major element in Orange is grief. The reoccurrence of the narrator’s dead dog leads them to think of the dog in seemingly ignorable instances throughout the day, like seeing a tree hanging from the back of a pickup truck and thinking about the internal psychology of a dog’s tail wagging. Additionally, the power of Briskin’s decision to include conversational, yet informative footnotes is a strong testament that the feeling of grief is not removed from logic, and intelligence is not immune to mourning. Due to this grief, and the cited sources within Orange, the concept of the unreliable narrator is both perpetuated and made obsolete. Funnily, the narrator is not beyond stating they forgot a reference, or simply do not know how they know a fact. The narrator also isn’t above stating when their minuscule observations (often from inside a cafe) caused them to be irritated: rude people taking orders, balloons, and candles at birthday parties, couples with bad vibes, etc., which only adds to their relatability.
The interesting component of Orange is that it resists genre and gender. Briskin plays with formatting, which both guides and confuses the reader by using a playful format that resembles the scattered nature of grief. Orange also resists consistency even down to adhering to gendering this possibly existent canine, altering between labeling the dog he, her, it. The dog having no gender targets the aforementioned symbolism of the lost canine companion not taking a gendered form, or the form of a dog at all. Maybe it was a partner or a personal characteristic.
What makes Orange particularly compelling is its simultaneous order and disorder. There is a somewhat disordered numerical system throughout that can be read both horizontally and vertically. For starters, the straight-forward thoughts throughout the entire book of prose are numbered in columns of three thoughts each, but not necessarily in order. For instance, the brief prose statements entitled 188, 305, and 686 share a column of the page, while titles 189, 304, and 687 share the same page in their own column, across the page, respectively. In order, titles 188 and 189 share a thought but aren’t entirely unrelated to the other titles that share the page.
This demonstrates how each spread in Orange could be read horizontally, skipping left to right, or vertically like a standard poem, or even backward, as some “titles” of the numerical order can be read, still in order, from the back of the book to the front. Frankly, there is no right way to start or finish Orange, which can easily be talked about among readers of various calibers.
Either way, the nature of Briskin’s grief feels contagiously in disarray. Repetition of “My dog died today.” as a whole sentence, which seems to reappear several times throughout Orange. In some moments, the scenes are reminiscent of flash fiction. Short scenes that are visceral such as a man with a loving dog who literally jumps through hoops for him, a scene of a woman fetching her dog out of a river, who may or may not have died in the eventful scene, most of which are reeled back in by the narrator’s realization that they no longer have a dog and can not experience that sort of love or reality, with statements like, “I am jealous here inside my own hoop”.
The summary says the narrator is perpetually in a coffee shop, a humorous twist on a person who is distraught about a dead dog. It feels like a character we’ve all seen before, and Briskin does a phenomenal job conveying the unreliable narrator. It brings into question if grief is vulnerable, what state is reliable?
And Briskin’s writing style is pleasantly conversational in nature — “565” starts with: “So there’s this guy, right?” and goes into prose about a man and his dog, and the elemental components that make them up. That is what Briskin is best at — taking a seemingly small subject and expanding upon it so that it doesn’t become redundant, but rather humorous and graceful in the ways that make poetry pleasant. Just as often and congruently, Briskin asks after the human condition, asking questions such as “What is performance? What is the line between an act and showing off?”
Lastly, Orange is a challenging book for all the right reasons. It is mysteriously vague without making the reader feel as if the text is above their intelligence, but rather stretches it, and introduces them to a new way of reading.
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Naya Clark is an Atlanta-based writer from New Jersey. Clark enjoys the challenges of writing articles, reviews, poetry, and interviewing other writers and artists. She is an Assistant Editor at Urban Ivy and an interdisciplinary freelance writer. In her spare time, she is underlining good sentences and organizing local art events. More of her work can be found at NayaClark.com.