Lately self-absorption has been taking some licks. A couple of months back the always self-satisfied New York Times Magazine devoted a special issue to what they called “The Me Millennium.” The concept was muddled, but appeared to be that the editors pulled together some yuppies who admitted to being self-centered, a sin that if left unconfessed might bode ill for the next thousand years. The fact that these essays on celebrity, selfishness, and the narcissism of pregnancy were placed in the middle of ads for $10,000 watches and Ralph Lauren cashmere coverlets tended to mute the theme, planting the idea that once this little guilt purge was over, it would be okay to resume shopping. To scold the American privileged class about their self-regard makes about as much sense as objecting to Moby Dick because you don’t like to fish.
The literary branch of this nineties obsession is the confessional memoir, and it too has taken its lumps, although fiction writers all over the land are abandoning coming-of-age novels for memoirs, because the agents and the publishers know that these things sell better. So perhaps this is the era of the inauthentic memoir, or at least the premature one — although a case can be made that, after the heroic generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, autobiographical fiction and non-fiction is America’s great contribution to the world of writing. Family considerations are intrinsic to autobiography, and after World War II, nothing expressed an America that could relax and become inward and depressed more than the dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Norman Mailer announced the age of self-absorption in his straight-forwardly titled Advertisements For Myself.
By the fifties, a new generation of American writers had pretty much taken over the family saga with confessional texts and subtexts of deep neurosis and original power. This brilliantly unbalanced generation of poets and prose writers included John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Cheever, and J.D. Salinger. The charm of the modern confessional voice presented itself in the opening of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, confidentially narrated by Holden Caulfield, a suicidal teenager:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all — I’m not saying that — but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
The renditions of the dysfunctional American family presented by John Cheever and Sylvia Plath were so charged and brutal that the pain expressed was tangible. Cheever may or may not have intended his letters and journals to see the light of day (they were published posthumously), but in them we are presented with the portrait of a man miserable with his faithlessness to his wife, his children, his church, and his muse. Read in conjunction with his stories of love and failure in the suburbs of New York City, the reader is able to piece together the moral background of his fictional accomplishment. Somewhat mollifying the intensity in the personal work is Cheever’s humor, as in a letter written to a friend about a disastrous family vacation, written from the viewpoint of the family dog. (While the Cheevers are alternately drinking, fighting, and wandering off, the dog sensibly complains about his ignored needs to get something to eat and to pee.)
But it is Sylvia Plath who is the diva of the literature of self-loathing. After several botched attempts, Plath finally managed to kill herself in February, 1963, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes (at the time of her death the more acclaimed poet). Hughes oversaw the publication of Ariel, her shocking final book of poems. Robert Lowell, an eminent poet who had taught Plath (and no mental-health poster boy himself) wrote the foreword to Ariel and described the book as “the autobiography of a fever.” Indeed the book burns both with poetic chance-taking but also with an incendiary hatred for the poet’s father, a German immigrant that she describes in “Daddy”:
I have always been scared of you, with your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat moustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–
Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
By the end she has cast him out.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
The year after Plath’s stunning posthumous book, a book was published that in retrospect looks like a precursor to the current memoir craze. This was Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, one of the most acclaimed American literary debuts of the sixties. What was different about this memoir of growing up is that the author was only thirty-one when the book was published, and at the time this made news — as did the book’s viewpoint, being that of the child, Conroy himself. Nineteen sixty-seven also saw the publication of Willie Morris’ North Toward Home, another highly-praised partial autobiography by a young person — Morris was the same age as Conroy, but his approach seemed older, more conservative. Willie’s personable style and Southern storytelling made for a very smooth read, one that imprinted on the reader what it was to grow up in Mississippi in the forties and live in Austin in the fifties, but the book broke no new stylistic ground.
Texas children used to be raised to not talk about themselves, but Mary Karr ended that in her 1995 memoir The Liar’s Club. In this colorful bestseller, Karr reminisced about growing up in a particularly backward corner of Southeast Texas, presenting America with her loving working-class father, whom she clearly adored, and with a problematical mother, who spent her time in bed drinking vodka martinis and reading stacks of books. This is when she wasn’t gobbling diet pills, driving Karr and her sister off a bridge during a hurricane, and running off from home. Using the same technique as Conroy’s Stop-Time, The Liar’s Club’s immediacy of impression is tied to the narrator being the author as a child. There is something a little tricky about this -Karr is skilled at the colloquial language of that region and is a funny and gifted storyteller, but at the end the reader wonders just how much of this childhood has been tweaked in order to compose an entertaining book. A story went around that when she signed books at a big store in Houston Karr’s mother and sister were present and her mother was overheard to say: “Honey, was I really such an asshole?” Thus arises the therapeutic idea that the time may have come for Memoir Victims’ Support Groups.
Turning to Spike Gillespie’s All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy is such a drop in literary depth that it almost gives a reviewer the bends. This is a truly terrible book, but one I suppose that needs to be looked at since Gillespie has pulled together quite a following and is considered by some to be a Texas writer. The wrong men in the title are led by Gillespie’s father, a garden variety withholder-of-affection, New Jersey style. In all fairness, as long as she sticks to her old man, there is something a little fascinating about this remembrance. “Daddy” appears to have been a genuine Catholic Crazy, who insisted on taking the family down to the Jersey Shore late each summer so that he could perform a homemade baptism in the Atlantic to commemorate the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. Spike’s favorite memories of these strange episodes include the sight of her father swimming further and further out to sea, while lightning struck the ocean all around him. Sad to say, the memoir doesn’t live up to this promising beginning.
Soon our heroine leaves home and commences smoking and drinking and running around. Generations of Americans have gloried in getting away from home and “finding themselves,” but not Spike. She just feels lousy and apparently wants us to as well. (The Randy Newman song “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” comes to mind.) Escaping home inevitably leads to all of the other “wrong men,” the ones who get her drunk, give her sexually transmitted diseases, and inevitably get her knocked up, apparently all without any participation from a conscious being named Spike (the nickname apparently stems from the mohawk haircut Gillespie sported in college). While we cannot question the earnestness of her depiction of how degraded she felt after meaningless bouts of drunkenness or drug-taking or sex (or all three combined), she appears to, you guessed it, blame this feeling on poor old Daddy, who by this time had washed his hands of her. Just to remind him how pissed off she is, during a drunken visit at the homeplace she picks a fight with him and they duke it out.
Something of the bathetic monotony, fractured syntax, and inadvertent humor of the book can be gleaned from the following passages.
On looking for love as a college freshman:
Men were no exception to my floundering ways. Far from it. Lacking confidence, convinced I was fat and ugly, I fell back on my well-worn, get-real-drunk-and-throw-yourself-at-them technique when trying to meet guys at bars or parties on campus…. At nineteen I still had never had a real boyfriend, someone to talk to intimately, someone who would give me that unconditional love I still foolishly thought was out there in the form of one other, waiting for me to find him, if only I searched hard enough.
On discovering that a lover has given her a case of the crabs on her way home from a disastrous Christmas visit with her family:
I spent the night with one of my sisters, waking up at dawn Christmas morning to drive the thirteen hours my old car required to get back to Knoxville. Midway there, I discovered a gift of crabs bestowed upon me by one of my many lovers, a gift that would keep me wide awake with itch and anger the entire drive, knowing there was not one drugstore with the available cure open on this holy day.
Distraught over my family and my crotch, I gave up that year on ever counting Christmas as a possible time of happiness, on Daddy as a man capable of redemption. I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into my dirty apartment late that night and collapsed on the floor, curling into a miserable ball on the blanket I called bed, eager for the next day to arrive so I could buy something to kill the damn bugs eating away at my groin.
On finally beginning to date a higher class of man, one that drives a Saab convertible:
Andy was wonderful, yes, but his biggest flaw was that he was not Nick…. But in that brief, brief period during which he wined and dined and fucked me without all the usual heavy analytical bullshit, Andy got a message across. I did not have to contemplate life ever after with each man who came up the pike. I could just date, be a more refined, less drunk version of the noncommittal woman I had been in Tennessee.
On yet another disastrous family visit home to her mother and Daddy, this time travelling from Austin:
It occurred to me then, as we pulled back into Penn Station, that mine was a Kryptonite Daddy, a piece of my home planet who paralyzed me and ripped my strength away whenever I got too close. I had run from him, his ideas of me as stupid, incapable, bound to fail, when I ran to planet Tampa. I had run from him to Tennessee and Missouri and Texas. I would run no more.
When I was back in Austin, a few days later, my mother called as she always did, to make sure my plane hadn’t crashed. “You sound much better than when you were here,” she said. I responded, honestly, that that was because I was away from Daddy. “He wouldn’t even look at me, Mom, did you notice that?”
My mother, in total denial, went on. “Well you did have your period, didn’t you?”
Well bless her heart, after reading such as this, we might extend a little Texas hospitality to Spike, and let her know that we have always taken in the renegade, the emotionally overwrought and the crab-infested, and that many of these imports are not only warmly welcomed by the locals but frequently rise to prominence in our affairs of state.
Indeed Gillespie’s place in our letters appears unimpeachable. She is apparently wildly popular as an on-line columnist, having been dubbed a “cyber-celebrity” by no less than USA Today. In addition to endorsements from nineties versions of the old-fashioned women’s magazines (Hip Mama and Bust are two of them), an unlikely Texas newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, recently added Gillespie to their roster — she will be writing a column on “relationships.” The vision of Spike Gillespie being a Metroplex Ms. Lonelyhearts is almost too delicious to contemplate.
Gillespie was a visible participant at the recent Texas Book Festival, making two appearances, unusual prominence for a young writer with only one book. At a wittily planned panel titled “All the Wrong Men: Women Writers & the Search for Mr. Right,” Spike held her own with the real writers in the group, looked good, and clearly was enjoying her moment in the limelight. That afternoon I spotted her walking down to the children’s tent holding hands with her son Henry, the perfect boy in the book title. I marvelled at the sturdiness of us all and wondered how Henry and Spike would both work things out when it is time for him to go his own way. Sometimes that twentieth-century ailment we call narcissism is passed down, and it may not be too soon for Spike to wonder what Henry’s confessional might have to say.