Wednesday, January 2, 2013

In Zanesville: Jo Ann Beard, with a comment on memoirs

     Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth put Beard on the radar of the usual suspects: NPR, The New Yorker (where I read some excerpts), the Times.  I liked what I read, but wasn't feeling compelled to check out the book--memoirs aren't my preferred reading, aside from the remarkable examples that, as they say, "transcend the genre."  I'm not sure about transcendence, but Stop-Time by Frank Conroy was just about my favorite book in college, and the others that 'transcend'--Augustine, John Stuart Mill, Nabokov, Henry Adams, it's a long list--are books everyone should read, and are perhaps more properly autobiographies than memories, meaning they deal with a whole life in all of its complexity rather than with isolated, and usually traumatic, episodes.  
     Nowadays the memoir is merely an excuse to discuss what shouldn't be discussed--childhood trauma, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, or, the latest airport instantiation, the drunken exploits of frat boy assholes.  Definitely not my preferred reading.  There's an element of exhibitionism in the memoir that I don't care for, or perhaps it's that reading memoirs is like listening to other people's dreams--they're interesting to the person who has had the dream, but the privacy of a dream makes its importance inaccessible.  The privacy, or inscrutability, of great fiction is different: I don't need to know what it feels like to be Korin in Laszlo Krasznahorkai's War and War; in fact, I can't fathom such a person, but 'identification' with the character isn't the point; what I need to be able to do is to assent to a type of life I can't imagine living myself; I need to sharpen my capacity for human feeling, for empathy.  But memoirs have empathy built in, as a kind of precondition for reading them in the first place.  Memoirs are like phone calls to best friends: somebody on the other end of the line is going to care. They assume our compassion, make demands on it in fact.  If the author is an unsavory or narcissistic person--and those who write memoirs are often that--we are nonetheless enjoined to feel sorry for, or to identify with, or to take the kind of voyeuristic pleasure in someone else's misery--all things  that I find disturbing and anti-literary (because of that built-in presumption).  The writing in memoirs is often flat and tedious, the voices mostly plaintive, the tone mostly aggrieved--there are exceptions of course, Conroy, Geoffrey Wolff, and A.M. Homes are writers who could make a shopping list interesting and whose memoirs are genuinely good reading--but the majority of memoirs I've dipped into remind me of being trapped at a party by a loquacious drunk who has a long tale of woe to impart.  A good reason to avoid parties.

     Jo Ann Beard is not, by a long shot, a member of this crowd.  She can flat out write, and In Zanesville was a book that made laugh and think and want to go back and, yes, read all of The Boys of My Youth. 

So: how difficult is it to write a novel from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old middle school girl?  Or, how many really good books have you read that were narrated by a young girl (and not by an adult masquerading as a young girl)?  And I don't mean books of uplift or books about witches and vampires; I mean books where you feel convinced that you are inside the mind of a child/adult, not the author's version of what such a mind might be like, but really looking through fourteen-year-old's eyes:

"I spend the next afternoon mentally preparing for the party [with the dreaded, popular cheerleaders] by hiding out behind the green velvet chair in the corner of the living room. When I was younger and shorter, I made a reading nest for myself by stuffing a couch pillow back here and an old afghan and then crawling in with my book, staying all day if they let me, creeping out only to get provisions. Now I have to fold myself in sideways, with the register jabbing into me and my feet sticking out. Tammy [the dog] waits until I've got it all arranged and am still before she gingerly climbs in and over, to settle behind my knees."  

The narrator, never named, has a lot to hide from: a drunken but loving father, a moderately crazy mother whose bon mots are the funniest part of the book, a sadistic older sister (I assume there is no other kind), nutty teachers (perhaps the book's only stereotypes, or perhaps not), unstable friends, and a social scene in nowhere Zanesville that reminds one of Joyce's Dublin--eccentrics everywhere, a place both banal and frightening--the 'real' world.  The narrator is utterly charming and engaging; you want her life to turn out well but are persuaded to believe that the odds are against her.  She's whip smart but surrounded by people who don't have a clue as to what is going on in her mind: in other words, someone with whom any reader can pretty much identify.

She spends a lot of time worrying about her father, an unhappy door-to-door remodeling salesman who should have been a farmer: "I wonder what my father does, adrift in the night, after the bars close. Nowhere to sleep but the backseat or a park bench."  She also spends a lot of time avoiding her big sister, parrying her mother's half-hearted attempts to be maternal, and helping her best friend Flea negotiate the shoals of puberty, detention, boys, and a shared lack of popularity.  Her hair, she thinks, is her best feature.

I love this kid--listen to her, at a party where she doesn't belong:

"It's slightly delirious [!] to stand here with his arms around me, my face pressed into his dark plaid, but I'm not going to lift my head. No matter what this feels like right now--the intimate, echoey sounds of feet shuffling on concrete as our bodies arrange themselves closer together, the party just steps away, all those other bodies out there, moving around, trampling the grass, his hands under the cheerleader jacket--Monday is only two days from now. Better to be the plain girls from history class who didn't kiss him than the plain girl from history class who did."

Beard is brilliant.  There's just enough of the adult here to make the story compelling, but not so much as to dull the sense that you are listening to the voice of a precocious, but not improbably so,  young woman.  I have to confess that part of my pleasure in In Zanesville was in memory: in thinking back to girls I knew when I was fourteen, and wondering how I could have been such a dolt as to never imagine what they felt as I pressed my ego on them.  To see the world through another's eyes is to grow up: and it's never too late.

Beard does wry, cynical, vulnerable, cute, hard-assed, and innocent in one paragraph; the narrator is, in turn, detached from what she understands is the phoniness around her (yes, there is some Holden in her, but how could there not be a dash of the quintessence of adolescent angst in any semi-alienated teenage literary creation?) and at the same time just with it, performing all of the actions that a fourteen-year-old girl living in a small town would perform: yearning to meet up with her would-be boyfriend under the Friday Night Lights, but then being confused by a mix of dread (over her father's recent disappearance) and reluctance to give her precious inner life over to someone she hardly knows. 

This is wonderful book, cheering and sad and best of all profoundly in touch with the inner lives of ordinary people. 

George Ovitt

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