Forgive Me Father

Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy memoir has a fun hook: the author's father is a Catholic priest because of a loophole where married converts to Catholicism who were already clergy can become a priest. Lockwood's unusual upbringing is the focus of the book, where the conceit of the story is that she and her husband, down on their luck, move in with her parents in the church housing.

Priestdaddy is a buzzy, fun read. Lockwood is internet famous, so she's funny and readable, and notable for her poetry, so the writing is lyrical and important. That said, the humor often seems nervous, almost defensive, especially early on, weighed down with observational internetty quippiness (not unlike that last bit of non-English) (sometimes it seems the internet is either trolling, snark or humor, and the tone here definitely hits those last two, even if snark is somewhat stale). Later, when things get deep, the poetry weighs in a different way: weighing down the breezy flow of a quick read — stuff like "A sky rose up behind my eyes when I looked at him, a wide sky of clear and ruthless seeing, with a short stunted tree of compassion twisting in the middle of it" — prose that makes you zone out for the next couple of paragraphs while you ponder what exactly that meant. It's not a great fit.

Priestdaddy solves what my very literal mind perseverates on when it comes to memoir writing, which is the yarn-spinning fungibility of truth. I'm the person who is relentlessly asking "Wait, did that really happen?" My take is that the world is much funnier if things really happened the way it is said to have gone down, versus a David Sedaris segment. Lockwood is attuned to this, and there's a magical moment in "The Cum Queens of Hyatt Place" chapter where she literally steps outside the building to look back in at her mother, who is silently arguing with a hotel manager about a stained comforter. She looks in through the window and writes: "The scene begins to unfold, and it's more dramatic than even I expected," as she conveys this crazy telling of what her mother said to the manager. It's a great visual of a yarn being spun.

On the other hand, somewhere around the middle of Priestdaddy, everyone involved in it — Lockwood, her parents, her husband, her siblings — become self-aware that they're in a memoir, which is when the thing slows down and becomes kind of irrelevant — or at least you start to question the point of the book. She's meticulous about taking notes for the book, and writing about how she's taking notes for the book, and the people she talks to are suddenly concerned with the way they come across in the book, to the point where she acknowledges that her irascible father — the book's title — has probably smoothed his rough edges for the book. It's silly to question why a book exists — books exist because someone paid someone else to write something — but at the very least it seems like she missed out on some of the promise of the blurb. The last chapter is a trip with her mother to Key West — the implication seems to be that it's the result of a windfall from her writing — and . . . not really sure what that's about, but I suppose if you ask whether a book "goes somewhere" this chapter certainly does that.

This being a book about a priest in the Catholic church in this millennium, I suppose it's obvious that a reader would be suspicious about certain details that make Michael Keaton seek to perfect a Boston accent. Don't worry, Priestdaddy gets there, though not right away. When it does happen, it feels almost vulgar, like she's been waiting to tee up the revelation. Maybe not vulgar, but at least like a 9/11 story. Nothing is direct experience more than it's adjacent knowledge, if that makes sense. She makes similar (though less direct) references to Ferguson and 9/11 (as a matter of fact), as well as the sudden death of one of the church's custodians; the writing reaches out toward the topics, like someone dipping their hand into the wind on the interstate, sort of like in a music video, or a Volkswagen commercial.

It's as if she's able to wave away any hint of complicity by taking it on firsthand, regardless of the magnitude (though maybe these days everyone is meant to be culpable for everything). The effect, however, comes off as almost glib — an aside about an old priest who skeeved out her family many years back and who was sent away is wedged in uncomfortably alongside quips and poetical musings: "A real observation suddenly interrupts the flow of toy ones."

I couldn't quite put my finger on the tone until I saw Lena Dunham's Harvey Weinstein op-ed, which nails it:

In the fall of 2016, I performed at a benefit for Hillary Clinton organized by the Weinstein Company. I had heard the rumors. I felt that going onstage under his aegis was a betrayal of my own values. But I wanted so desperately to support my candidate that I made a calculation. We've all made calculations, and saying we're sorry about those calculations is not an act of cowardice. It's an essential change of position that could shift the way we do business and the way women regard their own position in the workplace. I'm sorry I shook the hand of someone I knew was not a friend to women in my industry.

Yes, we've all made "calculations" — but it seems that time was we silently lugged them around with us and didn't think to unpack them so breezily. I don't know if it's a generational thing or what, but there's a type of sincerity that almost borders on insincerity, if that makes any sense. Like Eddie Haskell in a negative image effect, and just as smarmy.

Posted: October 12th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags:

Fairy Tales Are Big In Europe

Was intrigued by the idea of fairy tales for book club, so we read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a collection of her short stories that tweak the format by reconceiving the stories for a more modern, feminist voice.

In this way Carter takes an old weird tale called "Bluebeard", basically about a rich guy who kills his wives, and guides the reader more into the mind of the female character, while (spoiler alert) having her mother save her, as opposed to her brothers, as in the original.

Elsewhere, Beauty and the Beast receives an updated treatment in Carter's "The Courtship of Mr Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride". The updated "Puss-in-Boots" is playful and weird. "The Werewolf" and "The Company of Wolves" feel loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood (itself a deep dive into different texts it seems). The rest seem a little more obscure or patched together . . .

Carter's writing is bigger in the UK. Some of the stories are better than others, and while the writing is good/great, there are moments that seem kind of purplish, though I think goth-y type stuff is generally susceptible in that area . . .

Reading to young kids makes you hyperaware of every aspect of stories — everything from stereotypes to language to manners to encouraging positive behaviors. Which is how I became intrigued by the old bad fairy tales, the high water point maybe the uncut original Grimm fairy tales, before they became sliced up and edited into middle-class palatability (and even then, it's not like "Hansel and Gretel" is exactly "Horton Hears a Who" . . .). At some point it seems like kids heard shit — and now they don't. (And I'm not convinced it's specific to crazy old Europeans, either.)

Posted: September 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,

Emphasis On "Great"!

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns is as advertised: extraordinary, brilliant, lyrical, even "magisterial" (even though it's blurbed on the cover — incidentally kind of strange being that the source material is neither from the Times' Sunday Book Review review nor the weekday Arts review [notable books get both] but rather from the lead sentence in a profile about Wilkerson — I actually think it's an odd pullout word of praise; the dictionary definition is something along the lines of "authoritative" but with a little baggage of "doctrinaire" and other negative connotations; it certainly sounds like a good word to use though).

The book is a sympathetic, thorough and wide-ranging telling of the migration stories of three ordinary African Americans during the Great Migration, the era roughly between WWI and 1970s when millions of blacks moved out of the South. I don't think it's a big stretch to say that most of our understanding of this history is perhaps limited to Jacob Lawrence, in which case Wilkerson's hugely readable and thoroughly engaging text is important. Even though Wilkerson interviewed 1200 people during research for the book, the focus is on the three individuals — a woman who migrated to Chicago in the 1930s, a man who migrated to Harlem in the 1940s and an educated man who migrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s — working on the macro and micro levels by weaving in the larger story about the Great Migration.

The effect sucks you completely in — their lives are deep and textured and indicative and emblematic without sacrificing individuality. That part is amazing. Along the way Wilkerson notes some boldface Americans who traveled similar paths across the country and it all makes that much more sense. Her subjects are fully formed characters, with flaws and tragic sides and hubris, which is necessary: you might be tempted to dislike a subject at times — at the same time her subjects never come across as perfectly outlined or too rooted in pathos; they're not victims. Which is where you start to discern Wilkerson's narrative: she makes the point over and over that these migrants are more like immigrants (in the pre-2016 Alexander Hamilton kind of way) than you might think. She cites studies and statistics, which you sort of gloss over, to support this idea. And the three people she profiles are all successful — not always American Dream successful, and not always when it came to their children — but for the most part successful: home-owning, reaching a comfortable retirement, vital to their respective communities. For sure, how fraught their gains are (or were — she writes about two of the characters' deaths; those parts are tear-jerking in the extreme) is always hanging over the book, but the statement is unmistakable — these are the stories of survivors. It's big and even lyrical, but it's a bold choice, too.

Another conscious flourish that you'll notice is how repetitive the stories are: not from subject to subject but in the same person — even just pages apart. It's noticeable and obviously on purpose: I'm guessing it is meant to evoke someone telling a story, what with the repetition in that and circling back and emphasizing this or that. Not sure if I like it (Suns is over 500 pages) but I understand it on that level at least. Another part that reveals itself but which isn't — or shouldn't be — a big issue is that old pitfall of oral history, that being how much of the story is actually 100 percent true. I don't think it matters, especially when it comes to motivation to move to find a better life, which is by its nature internal (at least in part) (by which I mean that perceived or real matters little when it comes to a person's motivation; the motivation is the story). But Wilkerson never really says anything either way (which is kind of an interesting choice when you think about it); somewhere along the way you wonder how this is all factchecked — not that it necessarily has to be (but if it is I'm really impressed) (but if it isn't I think it's OK to at least account for that somehow, too) (this falls by the wayside when you get sucked into the book though).

Posted: August 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: