Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mixed Memoirs

The Afterlife by Donald Antrim. Farrar Straus Giroux. 193 pages.

In his last novel, the brilliant and brainy dark comedy The Verificationist, Donald Antrim' told the story of Tom, an infantile psychoanalyst who escapes from the pressures of adult life by having an out of body experience during a pancake dinner with his peers. The book was a hilarious, imaginative and rather mad journey through life, desire, ambition, art and finally death; an ornate, flawless Freudian yarn.

Antrim passes through all those way stations in his new book, too, only this time he isn't kidding, or at least not much. The Afterlife is a love-hate memoir of life with and without his mother, Louanne, a frustrated artist who died of cancer in 2000 after a lifetime of alcohol, cigarettes, men and dreams that never quite took off.

In death as in life, Louanne remains for her son an inspiration, terror and burden. Antrim is a droll, Proustian rambler; one memory sparks another, and at times he seems to be looking for tangents where he can step off, empty spaces that he can explore and color in. Along the way, he chews through all the complex unresolved love and hate issues one can have for an obnoxious, beautiful, inspiring selfish and driven mother, and he succeeds about half the time in keeping the book on an even keel.

Ultimately, it becomes an extended session of self-administered psychotherapy that ends the way a lot of such sessions do, with the patient curled up in a fetal ball on the floor, talking mostly to himself -- not a little like Tom.

"I could not imagine life without my mother," he writes. "And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live."

As a person, Louanne comes off as a person trapped by her own limitations and delusions, but one best pitied at a distance: "Her power to drive people away was staggering. She behaved spitefully and was divisive in her short-lived relationships with the similarly disenfranchised people who became her friends."

Antrim is very good in describing life with an alcoholic parent, and how reality becomes a liability "in a situation in which reality is inadmissible -- or, rather, in a situation in which people's feelings and hunches, their hungers and appetites, serve as reality."

This also becomes the kind of reality a child learns to accept.

"When you are, as I was -- and as I am -- the anxious child of a volatile, childlike mother, you learn how to appear to accept, as realistic and viable, statements and opinions that are clearly ludicrous."

Louanne's life wasn't a complete disaster. Despite her vices, she is also a well-educated teacher -- with a Ph.D. from Florida State in Home Economics -- and a fashion designer whose bizarre clothes are either ugly as hell or several eons ahead of their times. Antrim, depending on his mood, can see it either way. Visiting Louanne not long before she is diagnosed with cancer, "it crossed my mind that she was a crazy person wearing crazy clothes of her own crazy design, with a crazy person's hairdo atop a head brimming with strange hallucinations in which she conversed with a crew of spirits that included the virgin Mary and Jesus himself."

Or maybe it's the craziness of sheer genius; maybe Louanne's major creation, a "butterfly kimono" with a variety of oddly-placed patches and tableaux, is in fact as deeply personal a portrait as any artist ever made: "The power of my mother's robe is the power that was strongest in her at the end of her life. This was her power to force away the people she loved. There is beauty in the robe, as there was beauty in my mother, who, when young, was lively and playful and striking to look at, and who even in her worst sickness never lost her ability to laugh. But it is likely, for a person newly confronted with her kimono, that the naked innocence it reveals will defy empathy."

The story of a parent's death is, at least in part, a writer's own biography -- a writer whose life is determined not just by who his parents are but by who they were, before we knew them. Antrim captures this much perfectly: "Our parents' lives before we are born take place in a kind of mythic realm, a realm of the imagination, and our mothers' and fathers' power to shape and reinterpret our lives, to tell us who we are, even in our adulthood, requires our understanding that, because they inhabited mythic time, and because their existence has brought about our own, they remain for us immortal and all-seeing, just as they were when we were too young to survive without them."

Louanne had always wanted her son to dedicate a book to her; this book, part tribute and part exorcism, is the result. But if the book gives Antrim closure, it gives the reader something less. There's a limit to how much mileage you can get out of your own suffering, and what begins as a sympathetic, objective and revealing appraisal eventually gives way to the kind of self-absorption and self-pity that shrinks the reading experience rather than enlarges it. The book loses its focus; it becomes less about Louanne than about her neurotic son. What Antrim delivers is as patchy as Louanne's kimono -- a lot of pieces, some marked strange, fascinating or formidable, that don't make up a memorable whole.

Of course, it's worth noting that most of us never really resolve our relationships with parents, especially ones as close and as complicated as the one described here, so it's worth cutting Antrim some slack. Still, you can't help but wish for more, wish he had dug deeper, wish that he had held off delivering this book until the central relationship of his life had yielded up something more revealing.

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar Straus Giroux. 195 pages. $22.00.

I don't know what kind of arrangement Jonathan Franzen has with his publisher, but this loose memoir of growing up has "contractual obligation" written all over it. Either that or his agent advised him that it's good for an acclaimed novelist to make an appearance now and then, even if he only has enough material for, say, a couple of okay New Yorker essays.

Franzen soared to fame five years ago with The Corrections, an absorbing and ambitious novel whose go-for-broke prose style only occasionally overwhelmed the author. Readers of that book will likely see glimmers of it in this hit-or-mostly-miss ramble through Franzen's life up until now. His parents certainly bring to mind the fictional Alfred and Enid Lambert: him being forceful, bellowing and perpetually unhappy and her being a careful, conscientious, slightly dotty worrywort.

Otherwise, Franzen's young life is nothing to write home about. "Adolescence is best enjoyed with self-consciousness," he writes, "but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom." Curiously, nothing Franzen realizes in perspective about this period of heightened awareness ever amounts to a helluva lot. His adolescence seems no more awkward or unusual than yours or mine, and his memories of home, high-school and the trendy church youth group he attended are inflated and banal. I kept thinking of those pathetic stories Jeopardy contestants tell to make themselves seem interesting. (I could almost hear Alex Trebek say "So Jonathan, tell us about the time you tried to lasso a tire onto the flagpole at your high school.") Franzen sees himself as Charlie Brown, and he's perceptive in a nostalgic elegy for the "Peanuts" comic strip and its creator, Charles Schultz.

For the most part, though, Franzen doesn't give himself anything to feed on until the two essays in the last third of the book, in which he loses his virginity, learns German, suffers one masochistic girlfriend after the next, endures his parent's deaths, and becomes absorbed in bird-watching.

Franzen is a solipsist -- or is that narcissist? -- who seems to cherish more than anything the solitude that allows him to ponder his own growth, development and general uniqueness. I don't fault him for this because sometimes it works to his benefit.

In "The Foreign Language," he recalls how hours immersed in deciphering the finer shades of meaning in Goethe, Rilke, Kraus, Mann and Kafka broaden his sense both of himself and his family (although it seems to have paid off more in his fiction.) In "My Bird Problem," amidst tracking rare birds with names like the golden-cheeked warbler and the ferruginous pygmy-owl, he meditates on the both the gradual destruction of the environment and his inability to settle down, with birds serving as an adept, on-the-spot metaphor for both and more. Birds are misfits (like Franzen) and care only about themselves, which is what makes them most like humanity at large:

"To be hungry all the time, to be mad for sex, to not believe in global warming, to be shortsighted, to live without thought of your grandchildren, to spend half your life on personal grooming, to be perpetually on guard, to be compulsive, to be habit-bound, to be avid, to be unimpressed with humanity, to prefer your own kind: these were all ways of being like a bird."

These final chapters would not be out of place in How To Be Alone, Franzen's acutely-titled previous collection of essays, and they suggest he hasn't completely lost his groove. I hope for the time being though that they have exhausted his taste for personal essays. Bird time is over. It's time for Franzen to get back to work.

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