THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER

Autobio of MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother
by Jamaica Kincaid

This little book showed up in my mailbox recently courtesy of our favorite patron of the arts, my father. He’d heard Jamaica Kincaid speak recently (give it up for the Chicago Humanities Festival) and he liked her and thought I would too. The book’s equivocal title clues us in that this is not, in fact, an autobiography or a memoir or even a biography, but rather the fictional, first-person narrative of Xuela, a Dominican woman whose mother dies in childbirth. The loss of a mother she never knew shapes Xuela’s life and their two stories become intermingled in her mind.

Although this book is considered a novel, I would categorize it as being closer to a long-form poem. The writing is lyrical and elliptical, so those fully drawn characters and clever plots that I like to latch on to in most novels were missing here. But while I was in the beginning stages of this book, I happened to read A.O. Scott’s review of the film adaptation of Wild, which I believe opened this weekend (yay!).

Here’s what Scott had to say about Wild, the movie. “In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, ‘Wild’ reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”

Now as someone that fully enjoys a good, neatly packaged scene, not to mention a carefully scripted character arc, Scott’s comments could have caused me some consternation. But reading them when I did–while still in the early pages of Kincaid’s book–instead I took them as a measure of unsolicited enlightenment. I realized that this book runs closer to the short-form storytelling of a film, rather than the more expansive style of a novel, and so I read it with an eye toward those images and emotions that Scott mentions, accepting that it would be a different reading experience from the typical novel.

What I found was a story operating in the sensory, which clicked when I read these lines toward the end: “It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you … Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you.” Xuela’s story, being that of a Dominican woman in a time period left ambiguous (but probably somewhere around the first half of the 20th century), is ultimately a story of the victors and the vanquished, although Xuela refuses to be one of the vanquished, putting down stakes where she can: with her body and the physical world around her. For that is what you do when you’re left with very little that’s yours, you take what is tangible.

Up Next: The Berkeley Public Library (possibly my favorite institution in the world) informs me that my next book is in transit. Finally! I won’t tell you what it is, but I’ll give you a hint: when I first put my name on the book’s hold list, there were 132 people ahead of me and it was just named one of the NYT’s 10 Best of 2014. Any guesses?

 

MY STRUGGLE, BOOK ONE

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My Struggle, Book One
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Any attempt to describe the surface story of My Struggle, Book One is bound to sound boring. On its most basic level, the memoir is 430 pages that primarily involve our hero hiding some beer for a teenage New Year’s party and cleaning his grandparents’ house. But 45-year-old Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard delves far below the surface in this first volume of his six-part memoir. (Correction to earlier post: all six books have been written, not all have been translated into English yet.)

In this book, Knausgaard takes seemingly mundane moments from his life and magnifies them with raw emotional detail, context and backstory so that his internal drama–his struggle–comes to the forefront and, believe it or not, keeps us turning the pages. Because these moments have so much meaning to Karl Ove, they mean something to us. And they remind us of all those seemingly mundane but emotionally remarkable moments in our own lives and why we still remember them 20, 30 or 50 years later.

I’ve mentioned before that this book has received a lot of acclaim – I think the hoopla stems from the fact that Knausgaard is creating a new level of intimacy with his readers that’s hard to compare to other memoirs (or “autobiographical novels,” as this series is being labeled). Such intimacy allows the author to pull off a few conventions that are typically considered writing taboos. One example of this is his dialogue, which often includes a lot of “hi, hi, how are you, I’m fine how are you,” etc etc. Typically, this kind of banter is discouraged because even though it’s true to how we speak to one another in real life, it doesn’t translate and lands flat on the page. Yet somehow in this context, that measure of realism seems to work, or at least feel tolerable. It’s almost like we’d feel cheated – like he’d skipped something – if he left out the “hi’s” and “how are you’s” in light of everything else he’s allowing us to experience with him.

In the midst of reading this book, I happened to see Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, a movie that, in a very different way, is also forging a new level of intimacy with its audience. Boyhood was shot intermittently over 12 years, picking up once a year in the lives of its characters, all of who are played by the same actors throughout the 12 years. This is not a documentary, it’s a scripted story, but the aging process is entirely real. Never before has a film portrayed the aging of its characters by following the actual aging process of its actors. The effect is quite powerful: like a concentrated version of observing our family and long-time friends grow older over many years. How can you not feel more invested in someone’s inner life after being so intimately engaged in their outer development?

Where My Struggle pushes its medium by using words to explore the feelings, memories and psychology of its story as deeply as possible, Boyhood breaks new ground by stretching the visual opportunities of film. In both cases the “plot” really occurs within the characters rather than via external events, but the impact is quite gripping.

So here’s a question to ponder: why are adults obsessed with adolescence? Whether it’s the entire YA genre, Catcher in the Rye or these two latest additions to the canon of adolescent journeys, why do we feel compelled to re-visit adolescence again and again? I have my own theories but I’m curious as to your thoughts. Leave a comment below, tweet me or, for those of you who prefer to remain anonymous, send an email to tina@ratherbereading.net – I’ll post your thoughts without an attribute.