Book Review: Limbo by Dan Fox
Dan Fox’s new book came as a result of writer’s block, a period marked by failed attempts to write a collection of travel essays. Instead, he focused on this phenomenon of creative stagnancy and wrote about his introspective analysis. The result is Limbo, a long essay that considers a multitude of domains, physical and metaphysical, in which agency is removed and time takes on unfathomable qualities.
While acknowledging the cliched nature of “writer’s block” and the continuous debunking of that myth by numerous writers, he uses every cliche in the book to describe his writing process at the time (“I was on the sidelines, on the bench, in the wings. Frog in the throat. Bone in the gullet. Caught between a rocky trope and a hard cliche”) he ends with “stuck in limbo.” A significant portion of the book is dedicated to understanding what “being in limbo” means, following an understanding of what we call “limbo.” As the usage of the word has long been detached from its original context, so does Fox’s consideration of its meaning move from its Christian origins (though, while also acknowledging that various other religions have similar concepts) to the secular world. Limbo is Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare that left Josef K. perpetually waiting to learn the reason behind his predicament in The Trial. It’s the timeless dream level where Dom and Mal retreat in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Limbo was also Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport for Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived there from August 1988 until July 2006, and limbo is the US-Mexico border for thousands of immigrants.
Fox intersperses these thoughts with memories of his brother, Karl, who left their small English hometown of Wheatley to travel the world as a sailor. Karl leaving was an important moment in Fox’s life, and was the catalyst for him boarding a cargo ship in 2008. During those six weeks he spent travelling from Thamesport to Shanghai, Fox inhabited a space where time worked differently from his usual daily life. As the ship moved further east, the crew constantly switched to different time zones, causing Fox’s shiplag – “a slow-motion fatigue that brought exhaustion in incremental weights” – which followed him for months afterwards. When there was no land on the horizon, the enormous ship – described as “a city block, as if a London street had been welded on top of a keel and propeller” – seemed to be still, an entire structure suspended in time. While for Fox this voyage was a sort of limbo, for his brother Karl it was the exact opposite. Opting to stay in Wheatley was Karl’s limbo, which he escaped as soon as he could:
“Seeing other people in the village doing exactly what their parents did. You might get a new car at some point, or a raise, little things might change, but nothing big does. That’s your life. That wasn’t for me.” (Karl)
But Karl’s decision to leave automatically disqualified Wheatley from being classified as limbo. Going back to the opening quote, being in limbo strips one of their agency. It’s a state of constant waiting with no indication of when the time will come because time in limbo is infinite. If writer’s block is a form of limbo, the defining characteristic of the writer’s suffering is not knowing when they might write a sentence. Or at least a sentence they deem good.
Dan Fox has produced a fascinating work of understated excellence, particularly given his starting point. Eloquent in its consideration of the subjects it focuses on and elegant in the brevity and precision of its chapters, Limbo gets to the heart of the matter and gives you something to think about.
Dan Fox’s Limbo, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is out on 1 October.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.