The Observable Universe: An Investigation (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

In a series of vignettes varying in length from a few pages to a few words, McCalden delves into the history of AIDS, the rise of the internet, and how those two cultural behemoths impacted her personally.  A beautiful, creative, and devastating book that will knock you sideways.



— From Jade


Is anyone ever truly lost in the internet age? A moving, original memoir of a young woman reckoning with her parents’ absence, the virus that took them, and what it means to search for meaning in a hyperconnected world.

“Brilliantly innovative . . . syncing a narrative of profoundly personal emotion with the invention and evolution of today’s cyberspace.”—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and The Peripheral

In the early 1990s, Heather McCalden lost both her parents to AIDS. She was seven when her father died, ten when she lost her mother. Raised by her grandmother, Nivia, she grew up in Los Angeles, also known as ground zero for the virus and its destruction.

Years later, she begins researching online the history of HIV as a way to deal with her loss, which leads her to the unexpected realization that the AIDS crisis and the internet developed on parallel timelines. By accumulating whatever fragments she could about both phenomena—images, anecdotes, and scientific entries—alongside her own personal history, McCalden forms a synaptic journey of what happened to her family, one that leads to an equally unexpected discovery about who her parents might have been.

Entwining this personal search with a wider cultural narrative of what the virus and virality mean in our times—interrogating what it means to “go viral” in an era of explosive biochemical and virtual contagion—The Observable Universe is at once a history of our viral culture and a prismatic account of grief in the internet age.

About the Author

Heather McCalden is a multidisciplinary artist working with text, image, and movement. She is a graduate of the Royal College of Art and has been awarded residencies by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Mahler & LeWitt Studios. The Observable Universe, winner of the Fitzcarraldo Editions/Mahler & LeWitt Studios Essay Prize, is her first book. She lives in New York City.

Praise For…

“A dazzling, kaleidoscopic work of art that pulls scientific inquiry, memoir, and uncanny metaphor into a weave powerful enough to transform grief—Heather McCalden’s and your own . . . a book that is very much a survival guide for this era . . . takes your breath away.”—Brit Marling, award-winning actress, co-creator of Netflix’s The OA and FX’s A Murder at the End of the World

The Observable Universe exquisitely undoes our concepts of illness, attachment, and entanglement. 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.”—Cyrus Dunham, author of A Year Without a Name

“A masterful debut—a work of confident craft, razor wire wit, and unflinching courage . . . The Observable Universe is a mixtape, 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.”—Jordan Kisner

“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.”—Elvia Wilk, author of Death by Landscape

“What does it mean to lose two parents to AIDS, to inherit a load of heartbreak? Beautifully researched and achingly tender, The Observable Universe filled me with awe.”—Kyo Maclear, author of Unearthing

“An astonishing parsing of the fragments that make up that seamless whole we call a self . . . McCalden has given us a sparkling, spacious debut.”—Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer

“An extraordinarily intimate record of grief in connected times, The Observable Universe is poetic and precise, tracing the spiraling connections but also the empty spaces, the mysteries, and the emotional complexities that the past leaves behind. This book is haunted, and will haunt its reader, too.”—Roisin Kiberd, author of The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet

“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. 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 and Very Cold People

“Part meditation on loss, AIDS, and viral transmission, part howl of grief and fury, The Observable Universe spells out the transformative power of the internet better than anything else I’ve read.”—Gavin Francis, author of Adventures in Human Being

Product Details
ISBN: 9780593596470
ISBN-10: 0593596471
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: March 19th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English