[25 February 2010]
“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.
It’s Okay If the World Ends
A brief but related vignette now, of my own. I’m in kindergarten or first grade, I can’t remember which, and we’re having a class party for some reason or another. All of the children have brought candy to share; my contribution is a giant bag of M&Ms. My teacher acts very surprised and pleased to see that I’ve brought something and I, in turn, feel inordinately pleased at what I interpret as her praise.
Right in the middle of the party a very loud and frightening air-raid siren sounds. This being the height of the Cold War, though I probably had never heard the term as such, I immediately assumed that the “Bomb” that I’d heard my parents talk of had finally been dropped, and the world was ending. Well never mind, I thought, I’d played plenty of fun games and eaten plenty of good candy and so, I decided with a kind of insouciant fatalism, I was ready to die.
By the time we were herded outside, we learned that the real cause of the siren was an approaching tornado, still some miles away, so we were all told to run home under the sickly green and glowering skies. I still remember as I raced across the cracked concrete playground, with my giant bag of M&Ms under my arm, hearing my classmates yelling, “it’s a tomato! It’s a tomato!” and when I walked through my front door, I discovered that nearly all of the M&Ms had leaked out of a hole in the top of the bag, leaving me with only a few remaining candies. The rest were now lying in a long brightly colored trail leading back to my school, where they were about to be bleached white and then disintegrated by the approaching storm.
This didn’t upset me; I thought it was funny and cool.
With the retrospective intelligence of many decades, I can now understand why I remember this incident above so many others from my childhood that are now irretrievably lost. More important, I can now examine the elements in detail and understand how each was revealing of my already-formed character, and how incredibly useful an understanding of that character could have been for my life to come, had I had the perspicacity to understand it at the time, which of course I did not.
Consider: My teacher was so vocally surprised by my bringing a big bag of candy to the party because I came from a poor family, wore the same ragged clothes every day, and probably hadn’t contributed any treats to previous classroom parties. I was inordinately pleased by her surprise because I was too innocent to be offended by the implication that I was poor or possibly ungenerous, but more important, because I was cautious and respectful and craved the approbation of authority figures, who represented, after all, the life I could aspire to once the temporary inconvenience of my childhood was overcome.
I jumped to the conclusion that the world was about to end because my parents’ neglect had inculcated in me the sense even at that early age that life was fragile and contingent and that I might never have the opportunity to reach that life I aspired to.Yet I decided, or perhaps rationalized, that I was somehow okay with the world coming to an end because (in addition to being as self-centered as any other six-year-old child) I had intuited even at that early age that the best way to get through my life would be hang on to every good thing that ever happened to me —the candy and the games—and use such experiences as a storehouse against future disappointment and failure.
I pictured in my mind the long trail of M&Ms I must have left behind me because I had a congenital tendency to ignore my present unpleasant surroundings and to visualize—and poeticize—things that were outside of my immediate purview. Lastly, I was delighted by my little error, even though it meant that I would have less candy to eat, because I also had an inborn need to have and hang onto quirky little incidents, and for a six-year-old, leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel like trail of chocolate candies on the path from school to home was as quirky as it would get.
If I had understood then the significance of this tiny moment in time, I might have lived my life very differently. I might have been less unquestioningly accepting of authority, for example, and might have published a few zines and chapbooks on my own, as Sampsell did, instead of waiting, mostly in vain, for distant literary magazines to pass judgment on my work. In general, I might have been less focused on receiving approval for what I was about to do, and just plunged ahead and done it. I might have understood that, in building a storehouse of positive past memories, I was merely postponing a reckoning with the bad ones and, more importantly, with the ragged holes in my life that my upbringing had created.
On the other hand, in my unwillingness to live life in a headlong way (though like everyone‘s life, it was headlong anyway), I had very few serious accidents, and the minor ones I did have were mostly, like the lost M&Ms, a source of amusement and anecdote. In other words, whether it was a good or bad thing overall to carefully control how I was perceived and how I perceived the world, I never had a naked, convulsing freak-out at 3:30 in the morning. (Although here, too, and even now, I find myself rationalizing away the actual difficulties I have faced.)
Just because we all ‘live our life forwards’ doesn‘t mean that most other memoirs other than Sampsell’s have got it all backwards. Indeed, the whole point of the memoir is to slow down the ineluctable rush of time, consider the significance of what has already occurred, and draw some conclusions about a life—the author’s and the readers’ alike—that is still to come. A Common Pornography is an interesting experiment, and if nothing else creates in me the desire, even at this relatively late stage in life, to go out tonight and do something just for the hell of it.