A long time ago I was at a comedy show and the comic (whose name, I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember) made a joke that I’ve never forgotten: “I’ve just started therapy,” she said. Long pause. “Because I come from a family.”
End of joke. It’s a joke that’s a great wheat-from-the-chaff tool: those who laugh will probably be my friends. Those who don’t, or who look puzzled, we’re probably not destined to be BFF.
It’s a joke that reminds me of the essay in the Times Book Review a few weeks ago, the one in which the reviewer claimed that most memoirs probably didn’t need to be written: just having a childhood or being related to a drunk (or being a drunk yourself) isn’t enough of a rationale for a memoir.
I’ve just read three memoirs–I’ve been on a non-fiction binge lately, which is odd for me. I’m not generally interested in the actual actual, only the fictional actual.
I started with Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon, his collection of essays about living with his family in Paris. I remembered loving the essays as they appeared in the New Yorker but reading them all at once in a collection? Loved them less. Gopnik writes beautifully but the essays seem bloodless; they’re too tidy. And family life–whether in Paris or wherever–isn’t tidy. The best essay in the bunch is about watching World Cup soccer matches, which initially he founds utterly dull: the quintessential complaint of an American: no one scores! And then one day watching a basketball game he thinks that all the scoring seems…cheap, flashy, too easily earned.
From Gopnik’s Parisian world, I went to Long Island, to a bar that was home and hearth to J.R. Moehringer. My friend Jan suggested The Tender Bar to me and while I was reading it, I existed simultaneously in my life and in Moehringer’s tumultuous life in Manhasset. Maybe I liked this book more than I did Gopnik’s because it felt more like a novel—a man’s quest for a family, a father, a history. It’s a familiar story, as is the story of a drunk and disorderly family, but Moehringer’s prose and his willingness to accept the messiness of his life, and the lives of others, lifted the narrative out of cliché.
Claire Dederer lives worlds away from The Tender Bar, in an affluent suburb of Seattle where all the moms wear Dansko clogs and walk briskly around their neighborhood pushing expensive strollers. Dederer starts yoga after the birth of her first child and despite her initial disdain for the world that seems comprised entirely of twerpy lululemoned women, yoga starts to make more and more sense. In Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, she organizes each chapter around a specific pose, talking about how camel or eagle or even savasana sheds light on a particular aspect of her life—particularly her marriage. This book is a bit like Eat Pray Love’s younger, hipper sister: the spiritual questing is turned down, the humor and irony are turned up. I howled out loud when I read Dederer’s account of Date Night, where she and her husband sit in a Very Romantic restaurant, silent, except for exchanges of “what?” and “nothing.” “I could write an entire play about a marriage,” Dederer writes, “using nothing but the words ‘what’ and ‘nothing.”
Poser is a book I wish I’d written myself: it’s funny and smart; not the best book that’s ever been written about life, marriage, or motherhood, but it captures a certain moment in a certain demographic. The Tender Bar made me appreciate more fully the complicated relationship between sons and fathers, even absent fathers. And Gopnik’s book made me want to move to Paris—but then again, don’t we all want to move to Paris anyway?