Before I’m allowed to purchase a single t-shirt on Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s “on-trend” website, StyleMint, the twins bombard me with a series of photos designed to help them understand my “Style Profile.”
For a girls’ night out — would I wear skinny jeans or a mini skirt? For retail therapy – would I hit H&M or Neiman Marcus? For my day off work — sun dress or boyfriend jeans?
The whole process throws me into a mild panic. I am such a fashion disaster that a friend once suggested I simply burn my entire closet and have someone else pick my wardrobe.
But I muddle through the Olsen twins’ Proust Questionnaire, and the Full House girls finally label me “Classic Chic” (read: boring) and offer me a series of up-the-middle t’s designed, clearly, for their least fashion-forward customers.
Similarly, and for no good reason other than I happened to read them consecutively in the past couple weeks, I’m going to say “Bartók or Lawson?” could likewise define your own memoir “Style Profile.” (I’m guessing the Olsen twins and these authors have never been mentioned in the same breath before).
Anyway, Mira Bartók’s The Memory Palace (Free Press), which won the National Book Critics Circle 2011 autobiography award last month, is an elegant and harrowing literary endeavor about the artist’s coming to terms with her schizophrenic mother. Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) is an hilarious – if somewhat rickety – ride through Lawson’s redneck childhood in the Texas outback.
Which memoir would you choose to read?
Bartók’s The Memory Palace lays its erudite ambitions right in its title, which refers to a mnemonic device introduced in ancient Greece and elaborated upon by a 16th-century Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci. The strategy involves affixing each memory to an image, and then placing each memory/image in an imaginary palace in one’s mind. Bartók uses the mnemonic as an overarching structure for the book.
“My mind was full of so many pictures — with each one I could build a different room, each room could lead me to a memory, each memory to another. Since I knew what Ricci didn’t at the time, that memories cannot be fixed, my palace would always be changing. But the foundation would stay the same.”
One of the first images Bartók chooses to “place” is a moment in 1964 when she’s five-years old and living in a second-floor flat on the west side of Cleveland. Bartók recalls standing in the bedroom she shared with her sister and hearing a “low, gutteral sound followed by chattering and laughter.” Bartók wants to hide but doesn’t know why. Tiptoeing into the living room, she finds her mother, the former piano prodigy Norma Herr, in her underwear, stumbling around and speaking in strange voices before beginning to spin wildly, holding a long shiny knife and making slicing motions through the air. Mira sees the open windows next to the living room and wonders if her mother will jump.
“I don’t know how it ends, this scene – the beginning of knowledge, the knowledge that I have a secret I must keep from the outside world.”
As Herr slips into madness, her interactions with her daughters become increasingly violent until Bartók and her sister both decide to change their names and sever contact. Over the next few decades, Herr alternates between shelters and homelessness as Bartók keeps only loose tabs on her mother from a remote distance. Bartók’s guilt over abandoning her mother in her sickness percolates throughout the narrative.
“People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through,” Bartók is later told.
But Bartók – and the reader – find scant comfort in this sentiment.
The slipperiness of memory is a theme that lies at the heart of much memoir, but memory issues loom even larger for Bartók, who at the age of 40 sustained a brain injury in a car accident that left her with partial amnesia and cognitive difficulties. Seven years later, in 2006, Bartók was put in contact with her mother for the first time in 17 years after a nurse tracked Bartók down. Rushing along with her sister to their mother’s hospital bedside, Bartók discovered that her mother was dying. Bartók also discovered keys to a storage unit filled with notebooks and keepsakes.
Bartók’s memoir brews during the process of sorting through the storage unit and tending to her dying mother. Childhood artifacts evoke tattered memories, which Bartók renders with an artistic sensibility. Bartók judiciously refrains from overloading her narrative with violent episodes – just a peppering of images of a small child facing a gun-toting grandfather and raging mother are enough to provide the heartrending picture. And although Bartók’s meditation on memory does not strike one as particularly original or acute, the mnemonic structure provides a lovely vessel for her graceful contemplation of family tragedy.
Switching gears (much too abruptly), now — no one has ever called Jenny Lawson graceful.
“The Bloggess,” as Lawson is known to the millions who follow her blog each month, hit it big last year with her post about “Beyoncé,” a giant metal chicken she purchased (on sale!) at a discount store to get back at her husband, who refused to allow her to buy towels (he thought they had enough – duh). In retaliation for the towel restriction, Lawson stationed the enormous chicken (made from oil drums) at her front door, then rang the bell and hid around the corner to watch her husband’s reaction from a safe distance. In her post, a photo shows the five-foot, rainbow-colored chicken facing a closed front door with the caption, “Knock-knock, motherfucker.” The post, titled “And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles,” went viral with 300,000 clicks in 24 hours and has now been read by more than two million.
In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, out this week, Lawson recounts her childhood in West Texas, where her dad created a taxidermy shop in a back shed and her mom was the lunch lady in her school cafeteria. “My dad was always rescuing animals, and by ‘rescuing animals’ I mean ‘killing the mother, and then discovering she had babies, and bringing the babies home to raise them in the bathtub.’” One of which, a raccoon the family dressed in home-sewn Jams and named “Rambo,” enjoyed turning on the sink faucets and washing random things (Lawson considered turning him into a tiny butler). One day, though, Lawson’s sister bopped Rambo on the nose and the racoon flipped out, jumping on the sister’s face, as Lawson recollects: “He grabbed on to her ears like he was some kinda horrible raccoon mask, and he was hissing and looking right into her eyes, like, “I WILL BRING YOU DOWN, BITCH,” and my sister was screaming and flailing her arms and it was totally awesome.”
The sheer volume of Lawson’s rapid-fire comedy about her childhood is truly impressive, but unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Lawson she was writing a book and not a blog, and the writing can skew toward sophomoric babble, such as, “I wish I were joking about that, but I’m totally not” or “All of this will be fixed by my editor by the time you read this anyway, so really I could write anything here.”
I’m not saying a book can’t be brilliantly and hilariously casual, but I get cranky when a book-length memoir reads like a high school kid’s text message. Then again, Lawson has the ability to buy my love (mostly) back with not only some deeply personal — and tragic — moments, but also with the delightful absurdity of her anecdotes.
Consider Lawson’s entirely juvenile yet snicker-worthy recounting of an argument she had with her husband about the proper receptacle to use for barf: “He was all, ‘Vomit bowl? Who uses a vomit bowl?!’ and I was all, ‘I use a vomit bowl. Everyone uses a vomit bowl. You keep it near you in case you can’t make it to the toilet,’ and he was all, ‘No, you use a trash can,’ and I was like, ‘You sick fuck. I’m not throwing up in a trash can. That’s totally barbaric.’”
Reading Lawson’s memoir is similar to what I imagine it would be like to ride in a monster truck – a wildly bumpy ride with brief moments of hair-raising thrill, where you find yourself wearing a huge shit-eating grin despite the fact that you’re also thinking, “Holy fuck, I’m riding in a monster truck!”
So anyway, which book would I choose to define my memoir “Style Profile”? The elegantly intelligent Bartók or the hilarious hayseed Lawson?
There’s room, of course, in my bookcase for both.