The Observable Universe

Heather McCalden

French paperback with flaps, 424 pages
Published 21 March 2024

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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.