flapped paperback

The Observable Universe

Heather McCalden

Published 21 March 2024
French paperback with flaps, 424 pages



This book is an album about grief. Every fragment is like a track on a record, a picture in a yearbook; they build on top of one another until, at the end, they form an experience.



The precondition for all things that exist in albums is weightlessness. Images and songs have zero mass, stamps are mostly surface area, and autographs seep into their surfaces, becoming indistinguishable from them. The function of albums, long before the advent of photography or recorded sound, was to secure the particles of everyday life that might otherwise slip under the radar if not captured and pinned down: letters, old receipts, birth announcements, cookie fortunes, postcards, hair, pressed daffodils, and movie ticket stubs are items that might evaporate if not carved out of space and glued into a new chronology; albums impose themselves on their contents. There is always a beginning, middle, and end, a first place and a last place, and so the eventual arrangement of information might say more than any one object on its own.



I covered one ear with one hand, and my forehead with the other, and gently twisted my face down into my clavicles, folding into a seashell. The bartender asked what I was doing.
     ‘Hiding,’ I said.
     ‘You haven’t even had a drink yet.’
     This wasn’t true exactly. I hadn’t had a drink in this bar yet, but I had five beers at the art opening and a shot of gin, beforehand, to get me there.
     ‘Who are you hiding from?’
      The bartender then extracted his body from the space he was occupying and slunk down the bar, somehow leaving the impression of his outline hanging in the air in front of me as a sort of decoy. From his new location he proceeded to slide – on a single fingertip – a menu in my direction, as if I might be leaking something. ‘I’m going to leave you alone now,’ he said, ‘with all that,’ swirling his hand in a loose figure of eight to suggest a host of spectres around me.
     ‘They’re not contagious,’ I said, but maybe what I should have said was, ‘I’m not contagious,’ except before I had time to correct myself he was gone, flirting with someone else.
     I didn’t normally run my mouth like this to strangers, or anyone really, but the exhibition had left me with a horrible vacant feeling. It featured a series of black-and- white portraits of naked men. They were taken with a pinhole camera the artist had placed in her vagina. The less said about this, the better.
     When the bartender returned, I ordered a double shot of Basil Hayden with a single ice cube. I theatrically raised my drink towards him in a toast at which point it finally dawned on him I was three sheets to the wind. I wasn’t just some loon who had accidentally wandered in from the street, but a person genuinely trying to wind the night down, after being stuck to a wall somewhere else. He clinked an imaginary glass against my own and then left me to my thoughts, which were black.
     The bar was heaving with bodies jutting out at every conceivable angle and voices cascading in thick, jagged murmurs. Despite the noise I somehow caught a piece of a story being told in the crowd behind me. A woman suffering from intense, undiagnosed leg pain visited a temple in Cambodia for a possible cure. ‘A monk there told me that my heart was too heavy for my legs to support,’ she said, ‘so he walked me over to a tree and pointed. “Leave it here!” he said. “Bury your heart under the roots. When you go home it will not be inside you anymore, and after some time, you will forget where you left it.”’
     I chugged the rest of my drink, threw on my coat, and shoved my way onto the street.
     Outside, the London air stung my face and I clung to that bitter sensation until I lost track of everything else. It was late, I was shivering, and drifting like a piece of seaweed through town. The story of the woman and her legs swam in and out of my mind, and I wondered about putting my own heart into the ground when I looked at my feet and noticed they were no longer moving. It was unclear to me how long I had been stationary, but when I came to I was standing in front of a decrepit phone booth thrown off its axis by a car accident. The red exterior was severely dented and covered in a rich film of dirt. When I opened the door the inside was full of dried leaves, wadded-up McDonald’s bags, crisp packets, and cigarette butts. Ads for phone sex hotlines peppered every available surface. The booth seemed to have most recently been used as a urinal, but I walked into it anyway and closed the door behind me, the bronzed faces of Crystal, Violet, Alana, Tiffany, Tiffani, and Amber Rose staring at me from ceiling to floor. In slow motion, I picked up the receiver and held it a few centimetres away from my ear. I could barely make out a dial tone. It was faint, but it was there. It sounded like a song.




My mother, Vivian, ran the LA Marathon sometime between the late seventies and early eighties. The only evidence I have of this is a photograph in a coffee-table book celebrating the Los Angeles bicentennial.
     The dust jacket, glossy and jet-black, shows the city skyline piercing the night sky. Inside, postcard-worthy images of Angeleno city life, of Olvera Street and the Hollywood Bowl, interrupt thick passages of text glorifying urban planning innovations and architectural feats. At the dead center of the book is the marathon photo. It features a sea of tanned runners, fit and glistening in tangerine light. They wear headbands, wristbands, and tank tops with piping in primary colors. Their numbers billow across their chests like sails pulling them forward to the finish line. Near the center of all that color and motion is Vivian flashing her megawatt grin directly at the camera. The other faces, absorbed in purpose, look forward or down at their feet, and some blur, appearing in frame only as streaks of motion.



Several links form a network, like a tethered bank of office computers hissing and pulsing with electrical static; the computers are joined, ‘linked,’ but are also tied into a configuration, into a relationship, with one another. ‘Link’ is a verb and a noun – an action and a situation.

We might ask how information travels in such a situation. It flows. Like blood. It circulates down veins and chambers. It spreads.



Running underneath Los Angeles are several currents of myth. They propel the city forward with the same force as the material ones of traffic and population density. Their motion generates a field of visual distortion and all the images ever taken of the city rise out of the concrete like heat waves and bleed over rooftop pools and stucco houses, Bel Air mansions and strip mall parking lots, taco trucks and palm fronds, canyon roads and chain-link fences, and the consequent haze disorients. It both enthralls and repulses, confusing traditional navigational strategies. Tourists get nervous as hell when they can’t locate the geographic center of town. It means they can’t traverse it in any normative sense, and so the landscape fails to assemble itself in any familiar manner. Los Angeles is then written off as ‘weird,’ ‘nightmarish,’ and ‘impossible,’ and while it is all of those things, it is also a place where anything can happen. Most things, in fact, have.


Are we ever truly lost in the internet age? The Observable Universe is a moving, genre-defying memoir of a woman reckoning with the loss of her parents, the virus that took them, and what it means to search for meaning in a hyperconnected world. When she was a child, Heather McCalden lost her parents to AIDS. She was seven when her father died and ten when she lost her mother. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1990s, her personal devastation was mirrored by a city that was ground zero for the virus and its destruction. Years later, after becoming a writer and an artist, she begins to research the mysterious parallels between the histories of AIDS and the internet. She questions what it means to ‘go viral’ in an era of explosive biological and virtual contagion and simultaneously finds her own past seeping into her investigation. While connecting her disparate strands of research – images, fragments of scientific thought, musings on Raymond Chandler and late-night Netflix binges – she makes an unexpected discovery about what happened to her family and who her parents might have been. Entwining an intensely personal search with a history of viral culture and an ode to Los Angeles, The Observable Universe is a prismatic account of loss calibrated precisely to our existence in a post-pandemic, post-internet life.

‘McCalden’s sequence of itemized yet interlocking chapters – many less than a page long – is so surprising that this debut book feels revelatory…. She hires a private investigator to look into the life of her father, about whom she knows very little. This gives her story drive – rare in a collection of vignettes. But it becomes clear that for McCalden the facts of the past are not really important: what matters is grappling with how we live now, with contagion and loss in the digital age.’
Ellen Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman

‘A gifted writer’s brilliantly innovative approach to autobiographical non-fiction, syncing a narrative of profoundly personal emotion with the invention and evolution of today’s cyberspace.’
— William Gibson, author of Neuromancer

‘Part meditation on loss, AIDS, and viral transmission, part howl of grief and fury, The Observable Universe spells out better than anything else I’ve read the transformative power of the internet. It felt like Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts meets Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, and is easily the equal of both.’
— Gavin Francis, author of Adventures in Human Being

‘It isn’t pain itself that inspires great art; it’s the frenzied avoidance of pain that pushes an artist to do something, anything, other than feel pain. This book is what arises from that practice: the artifact of one writer’s solitary, complicated grief. With every carefully, thoughtfully written page, one feels the unwritten grief thudding behind it, beautiful and monstrous. And in the end there’s no true story, no solution to the mystery, no final coherence. But there is this marvelous book.’
— Sarah Manguso, author of 300 Arguments

‘An extraordinarily intimate record of grief in connected times, The Observable Universe is poetic and precise, tracing the spiralling connections, but also the empty spaces, the mysteries and emotional complexities the past leaves behind. This book is haunted, and will haunt its reader, too.’
— Roisin Kiberd, author of The Disconnect

‘How is it possible to fit the whole universe in a book? Heather McCalden has miraculously combined far-flung ideas and stories to show the interconnectedness of all things. Bodies and technologies, selves and societies, histories and futures, memories and speculations – McCalden reaches far and wide, and brings it all home. This book is brave and unique.’
— Elvia Wilk, author of Death By Landscape

‘Heather McCalden's The Observable Universe exquisitely undoes our concepts of illness, attachment, and entanglement. This book is not about HIV/AIDS, or about loss: it is born of them both, and so made of them. McCalden asks: if a virus is part of us, is it separate from us? When people die, are they still inside us? Strands of obsession, contagion, and radical inquiry braid together into lyrical meaning, without ever settling into moralistic conclusions or assessments. This book is explosive and profound, unusual and timeless. I believe deeply in the beautiful work it's doing.’
— Cyrus Dunham, author of A Year Without a Name

The Observable Universe both soars and tunnels, a feat of kaleidoscopically structured thought that moves with the glowing force of McCalden’s voice. It flew me around the world, drove me through my favorite city. It is a smart, supple, nuanced companion through the twinnings of grief and growth, and the ways we forge our lives not despite these, but because of them.’
— Johanna Hedva, author of Your Love Is Not Good

‘Heather McCalden has constructed a masterful debut – it is a work of confident craft, razorwire wit, and unflinching courage. This meditation on virality (in the body and on the internet) as the central metaphor of our time is canny cultural analysis all mixed up with devastating personal investigation. Mixed-up is its central formal feature, in the best way: The Observable Universe is a mixed tape, a photo album, an archive of what's lost and what's left and the fragmented work of sifting through it all for a story we can live with. May this be the first of many books by McCalden.’
— Jordan Kisner, author of Thin Places

‘A remarkable book.’
— Noreen Masud, author of A Flat Place

‘What does it mean to lose two parents to AIDS, to inherit a load of heartbreak? What forms can we invent to write unruly, keening, immoderate subjects? This book is catchy, a contagion of feeling, transmitting in all directions from McCalden‘s taut and ghost-ridden mind. Its effects are sly and accretive. Beautifully researched and achingly tender, The Observable Universe filled me with awe.’
— Kyo Maclear, author of Unearthing

‘Last night I dreamt I was Heather McCalden again. Which is nothing to be wondered at, when she has written a book which, just like the phenomena it seeks to record – viruses, grief, the internet – has the power to stealthily spread through and reconfigure perception and sensation, shape our experience. But is also very much to be wondered at, because I’m not sure how she does it: like the photo album that The Observable Universe is modelled on, the effect is immersive and cumulative, and seems to defy any sweeping understanding. It strips us of intellectual hubris, returns us to a place of awed humility. Maybe the only thing we can, and should, observe is that this book is like no other.’
— Polly Barton, author of Porn: An Oral History

‘It’s a fragmentary work, but the medium (half-memoir, half-essay) responds to the author’s own sense of disconnection and uncertainty, and at its heart is an aching feeling of loneliness and grief…. It is more a book about process, and difficulty of looking clearly at the facts that make you who you are, than a tidy narrative summation: life is made of many endings, but very rarely do we reach conclusions.’
India Lewis, The Arts Desk

‘[T]his nebulous volume movingly illustrates the fragmentary experience of grief.’
Publishers Weekly

‘It’s all fascinating and even within the genre-busting catalogue of Fitzcarraldo’s non-fiction line, it subverts readers’ expectations…. A startling and meditative exploration of medical history, computer science, and bereavement.’
Valerie O’Riordan, Bookmunch

Heather McCalden is a multidisciplinary artist working with text, image and movement. She is a graduate of the Royal College of Art (2015) and has exhibited at Tanz Company Gervasi, Roulette Intermedium, Pierogi Gallery, National Sawdust, Zabludowicz Collection, Testbed 1, Flux Dubai and with Seattle Symphony Orchestra. In 2017 she attended the Emerging Writers Intensive at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity and returned in 2018 for their Summer Writers Residency. In January 2021, she participated in the Tin House Winter Workshop. The Observable Universe is her first book.