The Observable Universe

An Investigation

About the Book

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.
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Praise for The Observable Universe

“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
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The Observable Universe

Directions for How to Read

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.

Seashell Head

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 then 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 specters 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 toward 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 centimeters away from my ear. I could barely make out a dial tone. It was faint, but it was there. It sounded like a song.

LA Marathon Photo

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 centennial.

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 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.

Los Angeles Refraction

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.

Organic Matter

When a person you love dies from organic matter and not from a car crash or a gunshot wound, the matter goes straight into you because: it continues to survive. Your loss creates a vacuum and the organic matter—say, a virus—rushes in to fill it. It exists there then, underneath your sternum, below the cartilage, mutating, evolving, spreading, as if it were a living thing, so you let it invade your nervous system, your organs, and just like that it becomes part of you, part of your story—a virus after all is made up of letters, just like words, and it serves as an unbroken transmission broadcast through time saying: I go on. I go on. I go on—

Oldest Known Specimen

In 1959, a blood sample is taken from a man in Léopoldville, the capital of the Belgian Congo. Thirty-nine years later, during a global search for the origin of HIV, the sample will test positive for the virus. To this day, it remains the oldest known specimen of HIV in the world.

About the Author

Heather McCalden
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. More by Heather McCalden
Decorative Carat
Random House Publishing Group