Saturday, August 29, 2009

Let's get personal, or memoir and its limitations

First, upfront, some face-saving apologies for my analytical deficiencies: my thoughts on this topic are not fully formed. I'm going to share them anyway, in hopes you'll forgive me any inconsistencies and/or gaps in logic as I use this space to do some mulling. This won't be my most elegantly written post either. Plus it's too long by half. Sorry about all that. I'm still going to post it and hope that all these various faults in the paragraphs to come will be forgiven.

The topic is memoir, and why my relationship with this, the most popular of all genres among U.S. readers, is at best ambivalent. More, why most of the time memoir, including highly acclaimed work, leaves me cold. The mulling was occasioned, as I noted briefly yesterday, by reading Mary Gaitskill's memoir-essay "Lost Cat" in the latest issue of Granta. This essay seems to be leaving all its readers weeping and sniffly. All its readers except me, and so I've been wondering why it left me unmoved.

There's no doubt some unpinpointable element of subjectivity to my reaction, as there is in every reader's every reading experience. Composed of, who knows, my own history with and feelings about cats, and fathers who fought in World War II, and siblings, and Italian villas to which I have mysteriously not been invited to spend a luxurious month writing, and travels in Europe which I have never been able to afford, and the Fresh Air Fund and East New York and immigrant workers and the New York public schools and private schools and poverty and racism ... Well, maybe it's not so unpinpointable, since this list that started with the more or less personal seems to have swiftly shifted toward the clearly political. And isn't that the whole point? Still, I want to acknowledge that there's probably some fuzzy emotional personal stuff that played some role in holding me back from the lachrymose plunge Gaitskill's piece seems to have prompted in everyone else who read it, before moving on to the more specific issues I can indeed identify.

In "Lost Cat," Gaitskill weaves together several narratives. One is about the sick puny stray kitten she fell in love with while at aforementioned Italian villa, and brought back home, and a few months later lost when the now nearly grown cat apparently strayed from her backyard; and it's about her long, futile search for the cat; and about her wrenching, overwhelming feelings of abject grief as well as guilt at the loss of the cat. Another strand is about her family--her father and the hardships in his past, about her and her father, about her sisters and her and her sisters and their difficult relationships with her, with each other, with their father. Another is about how Gaitskill and her husband signed up to be a Fresh Air Fund family that takes in children from impoverished New York City households so the kids can spend part of the summer outside of the city, and about the complications that ensued, and about the relationship they developed with one child and then his sister and their family, and the confusing, complex web of relationships that developed, and the hopes and dashed hopes, about ambivalence, best intentions, failed efforts, frustration, understanding and misunderstanding, confusion, guilt.

Overall, if I got it and I think I did at least to some extent, "Lost Cat" is a brief memoir about the necessity and pain of love. The complications of love. The wreckage wrought by love. Mistakes made in the name of love. Love's great ambitions, and its shortcomings. Gaitskill sets out to explore why the loss of the cat from Italy so gutted her emotionally, and it's the quest to understand this that she maps in the Granta piece. As I think back to the steps of this quest as she illustrates it in this essay, I begin to see why I didn't connect with it, and in turn something starts to come at least a little clearer about why I rarely connect with this sort of writing.

It boils down to two things. One is that love, I think, is not as inherently interesting a standalone topic as many writers seem to think. Or at least so it seems to me. Why didn't I relate to Gaitskill's painful tale of the gnarly twisty way love rampaged through her life? I've certainly felt love in my life, and pain, loss, various permutations of rejection and sorrow along with joy and fulfillment. I would maintain that I have no shortage of empathy. And it's not as though Gaitskill is some horrid specimen of ruling-class awfulness, not at all. She's a writer of working-class origins, I believe, and from the evidence of her essay her family remains not exactly well off, and if she has risen slightly to the point where she has a solid academic job with benefits that doesn't make her some kind of bourgie horror show. So we're not talking about, say, Christopher Buckley's memoir of his rich, reactionary parents, a book that got gorgeous reviews as if all families are the same and all books about family feelings are equally relate-able, yecch.

But. Although there's no reason to have a beef with this writer herself or her current life of relative privilege, what the writer has written here is the latest in an endless parade of memoirs by many writers, book-length or brief, all of which engage in endless cogitation about love and relationships, more specifically the writer's own loves and relationships--and it's this endless cogitation about these writers' love and relationships that turns me off, and here's why: it's a luxury peculiar to petit-bourgeois life in the imperialist countries. Who else, where else can writers devote their time and creative energy to conducting such in-depth examinations of themselves, their own lives? Who else, where else can writers expend such effort and artistry at plumbing their own fascinating depths and, unfailingly finding there deep universal truths, bring them forth for the edification of humankind? Not just can do so but would ever think of doing so? I mean, I just glanced at my bookshelves and what I see there in the way of memoir includes a book by a Sandinista about the years in the mountains fighting for revolution in Nicaragua, a book by a famous progressive lawyer who devoted his life to defending the victims of political reaction, a book by a great singer who writes about his confrontations with racism. All of them write about their personal lives, their loves, their joys and sorrows, but about much more too. Unfortunately, most memoirists in this country write the other kind of memoir. It seems to me that these writers, whatever their own class origins may be, are thoroughly in the grip of bourgeois consciousness (a topic I wrote about at some length in a series of posts earlier this year). Why else would they believe that these stories that are only about themselves are actually about everyone, much less that they make a meaningful cultural contribution?

That's still not sharp enough, I know; I'm sure I'll revisit this point in the future and I hope I can get closer to a cogent point. I'll add this for now. Thinking about Gaitskill's essay and the question of the proliferation of memoir, especially the particular type of memoir that proliferates in this country, reminded me of The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison's famous 1998 book about the sexual relationship she had with her father as a young woman. I actually got sucked in by the hype at the time, and read Harrison's memoir. Much has been written about this book's creepiness. Much was also written expressing compassion for what she went through. I remember that my main reaction was: why did she write, or rather, why did she publish this book? It's the same question I have about many many memoirs. What drives people to tell these stories? Aside from whatever personal psychological need publication fulfills, the motivation often seems to be some feeling that their story is universal; that they have something to say that the world -- no, not the world, the U.S. book-buying public -- must hear; most of all, ostensibly, anyway, that they have some wisdom to share that will help said public.

Really, though? What makes these memoirists think they're all that deep? Rarely do they have anything to say about the factory closings in their Midwest hometowns. Or the epidemic of rapes on nearby Army bases. Or the latest wave of immigrants from whichever country the U.S. had invaded and was occupying during the memoirist's teenage years. Or how all the abortion clinics in a five-state radius had closed down; or the rise in college tuition rates and long lines at the unemployment offices; or the lynchings that drove most of the African-Americans out of their county in the decade of their birth. Do they not believe all of this is the context for all that stuff that went on in their families, all these emotions they feel, all this love and hate and complication they've experienced and that they're convinced are relevant to everybody else? Some of them do, of course, and theirs are the memoirs that feel worthwhile to me. But the context -- by which I mean of course the class struggle, which is everywhere and ongoing and is the context for everything, on the grandest scale as well as the most intimate -- is what I find to be missing in most of the memoir genre. It's this absence of social context that leaches the meaning out of all that blather about love.

Many paragraphs ago I said my inability to connect to the sort of memoir of which "Lost Cat" is an example boils down to two things. This -- the question of social and political context -- is the second. Now, let me make clear that, as mainstream writers go, Gaitskill is far from clueless. The parts of the piece that are about her relationship with the two Latino children from Brooklyn fairly crackle with her awareness of the contradictions involved in that relationship. As she becomes more and more involved in their lives, as she and her husband aid them financially, educationally, socially, and as none of it goes smoothly, as their best efforts frequently backfire, as problems pile upon problems, she is well aware of at least part of the broader picture, and equally aware of the personal, social, cultural and financial pitfalls for her husband and herself, two white middle-class professionals trying in their own well-meaning way to help two impoverished children of color, and especially of the pitfalls for the children themselves. Well aware? Well, not quite, not by my read, and here's where the limitations of bourgeois consciousness intrude. Where the blinders of the memoirist honing in on what she believes to be some deeply meaningful episodes in her own life without stepping back and widening the focus to take in the broader context end up narrowing the relevance of the memoir.

This then, I believe, is why I did not cry. In my opinion, Gaitskill's brief memoir--which sort of ends up equating the two children with the lost cat in terms of her feelings and her faulty efforts to save them, save the cat from straydom and save the children (yeah, I know,) from poverty, drugs, crappy housing, schools, etc.--fails because it doesn't look at the big picture, about the children, who I hope are meant to be the most important part of the story though the cat gets the title, in any meaningful way. The children's mother, for example, while initially portrayed with some slight sympathy, comes off as the villain of the piece. She's violent, emotionally and materially unreliable, and so on. The schools, the social service agencies, the summer camps, the courts, all the structures with which Gaitskill interacts as she tries to be a positive force in the children's lives, all of course fail to provide a way forward for the children. But none of it gets more than cursory treatment of the things-are-awful-in-the-inner-city sort. Why does the children's mother behave as she does? She's an immigrant, though we're not told from which Latin American country--well, what brought her here? NAFTA and the consequent destruction of the Mexican economy? Or desperate conditions in the Dominican Republic, where the U.S. invaded and ousted the progressive elected government in 1964? Or Puerto Rico, held as a colony for over 100 years? What kind of desperation, loneliness, racism does she endure? Especially important, is she undocumented? As for the New York public schools, how can anyone write about their failings without addressing the unbelievably, criminally unequal funding that basically throws the children of the poor onto the educational junk heap? That's the context for what happens to the kids Gaitskill is writing about; without addressing it the story stays on the level of individual sad stories that leave everyone feeling hopeless and impotent. Again, I'm not accusing Gaitskill of any kind of terrible right-wing hardheartedness, and I suppose I can't require that every book explicitly advocate for political struggle on a mass scale, but I am arguing, I guess, that a wider scope, a fuller field of vision would have been necessary to have lifted the story of her relationship with these two Brooklyn kids to the level of social relevance I'd wish for.

A political consciousness, in other words, extending beyond the petit-bourgeois norm. That's what makes a memoir move me. And what this one lacked, hemmed in as it is by the limits of liberalism. Which is why I didn't cry.