Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Half a Life

hell fire entrance, photo 2012 herspiral
Last night, I began reading a book I'd picked up at St Vinnie's a few days before. It was a half hour before bed, not a great time to start a new book, but I was in book limbo and didn't want something as stimulating as magazine articles or the internet.

I picked up Half a Life by Darin Strauss. A beautiful cover, made by McSweeney's, with a strong recommendation on the front from Carrie Fisher. I'd read the first few pages, and a few from the middle, while still standing in the biography section of Vinnie's. It looked good. It only cost $2.
Why not.

I finished the book in 2.5 hours, two hours past my bedtime. I could not put it down. It's a very compelling story, and the kind that some would potentially call a faultily self-absorbed memoir. But for me, the fact that he reflects on his memory process, his growth process and even his writing process sold me.

The basic story: when he was 18, he accidentally struck a girl on a bike with his car and killed her. She was from his high school, two years younger than him. It was just a few weeks before graduation. He takes the reader through those few weeks, constantly turning the facets of self-reflection, pointing out where he was acting out grief and where he was feeling it for real, and how those varied from and played off one another. Eventually, there's a court case where her parents sue him, though it was clear to everyone he was not at fault.

The memoir takes us through half his life - he killed her at 18, and published this at 36 - and I relate strongly to this math. The math of half lives of loss and grief. I also relate strongly to his way of talking about attention and grief, what seems like acting versus what the real feelings are, not being sure of what he was feeling. And this topic he doesn't say, but I hear loud and clear: when you go through such an extreme process at such a young age, it's hard to tell what in your character and manner came from the mourning or what came from being, say, in your twenties.

Some passages:
I've come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn't properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That's what shock is.
A sickly paste of anxiety covered everything. I feared that by giving my feeling over to someone else's idea of what I should be feeling, I'd lose it. 
So here was another ritual. As in all rituals, people had expectations about how it should be performed. It was as if every moment at which I could have expressed my real sense of what had happened--my anxiety, confusion, queasy guilt; the Houdini sensation that everyone who escapes blame feels, everyone who has been pronounced blameless--they all worked to obstruct that sense. It was blocked off by a completely different sense, that of other people watching me.
Strauss also spends time turning the mirror back on himself - admitting that this book is all about him, his experience, because this is what he knows. It's not that he never thought of the girl he killed, or her family, or even thought he had it worst of all. Not the case. It's just that what he knows is what he experienced - myopic blame, shock and grief of a late-teen-to-twenties young man.

This he renders so well. And the fact is, it's universal. Even if we have never killed someone, there are so many demons we carry around in our heads about things we have done wrong, or how we are wrong. In all this book is an investigation of shame, of blame, of self-flagellating guilt. And how he came out of it, slowly but surely. Amazing.

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