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Grief and Geology Both Take Time in ‘The Book of Unconformities’

Rocks allow the contemplation of scale — “deep time,” in McPhee’s words. They allow Raffles to tell the story of Manhattan, for example, from its very formation — “a jeweled paradise,” with its fat veins of minerals. They also testify to a particular seam of human history, one of resource extraction, rapacity and systematic abuse. An “unconformity” is the geological term for “a discontinuity in the deposition of sediment,” in Raffles’s words. Put another way, it’s a physical manifestation of a gap in time. The stones in this book tell strikingly similar stories — stories whose contours we might know, but whose details and particular, individual impacts have been lost or blunted.

There’s a trend for nonfiction to make large claims of how some phenomenon or another “makes us human” — language, cooking, navigation, even animals. Raffles, however, traces how influence works in the opposite direction, how human behavior transforms the natural world. There’s no narrative here that is not also an account of human avarice. In one chapter, Raffles travels to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago whose beaches comprise a grisly memento mori, covered with “blubberstones” — gravel mingled with rendered fat, vestiges of the mass killings of seals and whales.

How lucid this book sounds in summary. In fact, Raffles is serenely indifferent to the imperatives and ordinary satisfactions of conventional storytelling. Character, coherence, a legible and meaningful structure — these are not his concerns. The organization of the book feels profoundly random. There are no attempts to suture together the various stories, no attempts to enact something “learned” by the author. The photographs accompanying the text are dim and blotchy, and Raffles favors slabs of prose unbroken by punctuation. I intend all this as praise.

The epigraph, lines from Seamus Heaney, prepares us: “Compose in darkness. / Expect aurora borealis / in the long foray / but no cascade of light.” There is no great dawning of understanding; clarity arrives in sudden shafts — and any coherence is for us to supply. Raffles makes us sift for meaning; how do they connect, these juxtaposed narratives about Indigenous history, whaling, his sister Franki’s photographs of women at work?

We’re called to engage in that signal human activity: interpretation. What intuition the book requires, what detective work — and what magic tricks it performs. Stones speak, lost time leaves a literal record and, strangest of all, the consolation the writer seeks in the permanence of rocks, in their vast history, he finds instead in their vulnerability, caprice and still-unfolding story. In Svalbard, he regards the jagged coastline — one wreck companionably observing another. He quotes the painter Anselm Kiefer: “A ruin is not a catastrophe. It is the moment when things can start again.”

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