Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip

First of all, just look at this cover.

Looks like a library edition of a sociology text published in the late seventies, right?
It's a brand new memoir, just out in paperback this month. This is the hardcover edition, which, in fact, when holding it in person, feels like a library edition (no separate flyleaf cover, molded cover of colors). But this was the public version published.

I heard about it over here on Jen Louden's blog post about the best memoirs she's read lately.
I was intrigued - I've written about middle school and found it hard to do. What Jen doesn't mention, and what blew me away from page one, is that the whole thing is written in THIRD PERSON (he). First of all, this is relatively unknown in memoir (see some discussion/examples here) - usually it's written in first person (I/me) or at a stretch, second (usually more autobiographical novel form, like Bridget Birdsall's Ordinary Angels). If third person is used at all, it's used in small amounts - like in Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping. It's a stunner to keep it up the whole time.

And yet, for a lot of my students, third person allows a perspective - compassion, understanding - that can't seem to come alive when writing with "I". You can feel that here, in this passage, the most tender of them from this book:
There on the grass, spilling out of a speckled blue egg, is the goo of a half-formed bird, a strange lump of Vaseline with a dark net of veins inside it, connecting a pair of eyes and a tweezerlike beak and the popped red balloons of several tiny organs, one of which must be its heart.

It's not in third person yet. Could be a beautiful, intense description in a vivid memoir. Here's where he harnesses that image with third person, in the lines immediately following:
Kevin can hardly stand to look at it. That this transparent stew of parts, slopping around in the darkness of its shell, is all the bird will ever be gives him an awful gutshot feeling he cannot name, and he knows that if he thinks about it for too long tears will rise to his eyes. He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes.

I know, right? My heart bursts, and in a way, frankly, I don't think it would if it had been written in first person. So so powerful.

But to be clear, this is a memoir about seventh grade in America, in Little Rock Arkansas, and this precious young boy does have, well, less sensitive friends. I hate to break it to you, but this is what comes in the next paragraph:
Out of the blue, Kenneth says to him, "Hey, Kevin, I'm not making fun of you, I"m just curious: Could you fit your dick in that egg?"

I know, right? Trigger-worthy material for anyone who has been verbally bullied. And in-credible. The language, the honesty. Again, as you hear me write about a lot here, the refusal for victim-hood. Kevin clearly marks himself as sensitive, and as subject to bullying, but he also knows his otherlands and sensitivity are important. He bows, he kowtows to the other boys, until he realizes it isn't worth it.

And how does he come to that realization? In the dead center of the book it happens in a completely unprecedented way, and in a way I don't want to reveal too much of here, but needless to say, Brockmeier's fiction-writing past comes fully into fruition in an obvious way, that somehow seems to work.

I also write a lot here about the lines between fiction and memoir, truth and memoir, memory and memoir. Clearly Brockmeier does not remember every single one of these exchanges. And it's obvious by the time you get through the heart center where he converses with his older self (hint hint) that he's functioning on the high end of the fiction/literary spectrum when it comes to memoir. And yet, he is no James Frey. He is not lying to us. The emotional honesty, lack of exaggeration, the accuracy of heart is so pure, so direct and clear that I was along for the ride the entire way.

Approach this book carefully - if seventh grade or its equivalent for you was hard, you will either find this redemptive or impossible to read. And if you are one of very few in the world who passed through adolescence without scars, you will find it anthropologically interesting. Regardless, it's a powerful read.

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