“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
I once saw at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago an exhibit consisting of a long, slender rectangular glass box, about the length of a canoe paddle, inside of which were various brightly colored and randomly arranged geometric shapes, seemingly floating in air but attached to the sides of the box by nearly invisible wires. When I viewed these shapes from one end of the box, from the top, or from the sides, they created a chaotic jumble of points and lines. When I sighted down the length of the tube at the other end through a small lens designed to flatten perspective, however, the shapes magically resolved into a perfect, multi-colored square.
Most of our memoirs sight down a similar lens, neatly resolving the spiky and jumbled agglomeration of random incident into a single squared-off triumph or tragedy, and rarely anything more ambiguous or multifarious than that. Excepting, to some degree, published journals and diaries, it’s unusual to encounter memory works that actually replicate the way we experience our lives: In a headlong, jumbled rush, where the meaning is apparent only well after the fact, and then only if certain inconvenient details are omitted.
Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography is a front-facing memoir that attempts to replicate the jumble of our early lives without, at least at the beginning, drawing any permanent conclusions. The book consists of a hundred or so vignettes of Sampsell’s life in more-or-less chronological order, which at first are as random-seeming as the events and sensory impressions of our early childhood, unfiltered as they are by experience.
The second vignette in the book, “Egg Hunt”, reads, in its entirety:
When the gun sounded, Matt (his brother) ran ahead of me with the other kids who filled the park. I could tell they were all excited, yelling into the wet spring air. The sky was speckled with birds and high dark clouds. I ran the other way, back toward home. When I got to the house, Mom held me as I cried for no good reason. My brother came in the side door with his homemade Superman cape over his shoulder and a basket of decorated eggs and chocolate candies. It was the first time I gave up.
Another, also in its entirety, reads:
Matt told me a story once about how I almost got lost at the Medical Lake hospital when I was four. We had gone with Mom to visit Elinda and he was supposed to be watching me. I ran off somewhere, scampering around corners, hiding behind doors, trying not to laugh. Finally Matt found me, just before I walked into the outstretched arms of a drooling old woman in a tattered nightgown.
This book is constructed of such small moments, but as it proceeds, a clearer picture of Sampsell emerges for the reader and, in real time, for Sampsell himself. It might be said that Sampsell‘s early life can be defined largely by the “Four Ps“: Punk music, Pornography, Publishing, and Prostitution. Given that the punk aesthetic is defined by a strong contempt for received forms and empty and overly slick “professionalism”; that his publishing ventures are entrepreneurial; and that prostitution generally requires the enthusiastic assent of only one party to the transaction, it could be argued that all four of Sampsell’s predilections have a strong do-it-yourself element (the point about pornography should be an obvious one).
This “do-it-yourself” approach to life seems entirely consistent with his headlong, front-facing approach to writing. On the evidence of this book, Sampsell is not the type to await entry into established institutions, nor to seek permission in advance or validation after the fact. He just plunges ahead, for better or for worse. This makes for a readable and convincing book, but, like a one-minute-and-56-second Minutemen song, it also makes for a fairly skimpy and sometimes sloppy one.
Over time, of course, Sampsell’s book, and his life, accumulate definitive meaning. Sampsell forms a band called Neon Vomit (nice!); works at radio stations, in a factory assembling baby cribs, and as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant; loses interest in prostitutes, participates in chaotic group sex, finds girlfriends, falls in love, and eventually has a child (now a well-adjusted teenager); he publishes his own writing in magazines and poetry chapbooks and zines, and founds a small publishing house called Future Tense books; edits an anthology called Portland Noir and, generally, grows up, accomplishes some interesting things, and creates a purposeful existence.
As in any existence, there are themes that become fully apparent only in retrospect, and in Sampsell’s case, as with most of us, these overwhelming but at first hard-to-discern influences are embodied in his family, and in particular his abusive father and his half-sister Elinda, who was forced to endure shock treatments at a psychiatric hospital among other indignities. Oh, and in this connection, here’s one more vignette that bears a bit of mulling-over: “Dad gave me a vibrator once. Sort of oval-shaped. He gave it to me so I could wrap it and give it to Mom as a birthday present. Later, they kept it in a drawer by the bed. Then, shortly after, they slept in separate beds.” Hmmm.
Unlike the rest of this book, the very first pages of A Common Pornography are set close to the present day, not long after his father’s death, and recount Sampsell’s belated realization that he hadn’t properly understood his father’s impact on his life; Sampsell has a terrible panic attack that drives him out of the house naked at 3:30 in the morning, convulsing and crying uncontrollably.
‘Living your life forwards’ is the only possible way to do it, and writing a memoir that attempts to replicate the forwardness of our lives makes for an interesting and readable memoir, but there is something to be said for being reflective and retrospective, too: It tends to minimize the likelihood of naked panic-attack freak-outs many years down the road.
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