When Meghan O’Gieblyn writes about getting an MRI to gauge the size and operability of a tumor in her head, the climax of the scene has nothing to do with the results of the scan. Indeed, the tumor never comes up again. Instead of learning the final diagnosis, we learn that the MRI induced a kind of double vision. Inside the tube, O’Gieblyn thinks, “I am a person of the future, enclosed in this synthetic cocoon that uses particle physics to capture the insides of bodies.” But the machine, made by the same company that manufactured her mother’s overheating dishwasher, is also “loud and clunky”—barbaric-seeming. “Throughout the rest of the session,” she writes, “these two images—the machine as futuristic wonder, the machine as primitive contraption—existed simultaneously in my mind, like a hologram.”
That the past and the future are both alive in the present is a commonplace. But O’Gieblyn is uncommonly attuned to its manifestations, often dwelling on hologram-like concurrences that others gloss over or miss completely. In an essay about Hell, for example, she describes her surprise when she—who grew up believing in damnation—sees “scholars like Elaine Pagels refer to Satan as ‘an antiquarian relic of a superstitious age,’ or [comes] across an aside, in a magazine article, that claims the Western world stopped believing in literal hell during the Enlightenment” (emphasis O’Gieblyn’s). O’Gieblyn grants that belief is, from certain angles, anachronistic, but she implies that claims of its disappearance neglect its contemporary relevance. The scholar’s relic guides millions of people’s lives. If there’s a motif running through Interior States, O’Gieblyn’s new and varied essay collection, it’s her attempt to braid together the out-of-sync historical, cultural, and religious narratives she finds hiding in plain sight.
The book’s main themes, Midwesternness and Christianity, are drawn from O’Gieblyn’s life. Born in 1982, she was raised by evangelical Christian parents who moved the family from Illinois to Michigan to Wisconsin. But she began to lose her faith soon after matriculating at the Moody Bible Institute, where she had gone to become a missionary. While coping with the loss of the beliefs that had defined her worldview, she turned to writing, which became “a way to impose some semblance of order on a world that felt muddled and morally chaotic.” Interior States is the result of this turn. Rounded out by three book reviews, one meditation each on the concepts of subtlety and contemporaries, and a consideration of Alcoholics Anonymous, its core comprises three essays on the Midwest and six on Christianity.