Books

Is Alyse Myers' Life More Important Than Yours?

Image partial - artist unknown

Ding dong! Ding dong! Another dysfunctional-family memoir bearing a terrible secret is at the door!

The Forbidden Message of the Memoir

Are some lives more important than others?

It’s an uncomfortable question to ask. So uncomfortable, in fact, that it’s one of those rare contemporary topics that have succeeded in becoming a universal taboo.

In the more or less egalitarian West, we believe that we are created equal and remain equal in the eyes of God, that class distinctions don’t much matter, and that anyone can achieve anything they want if they just dream big enough and work hard enough.

But even in Third World countries, where the aspirations of the individual are routinely crushed, dictators wield a very loud and phony brand of populism to maintain their grip on power, claiming that everyone is equal in the eyes of the State – equally un-important, to be sure, but equal nonetheless.

And yet every day, whether we live in a free society or a fascistic one, every one of us buckles down under a system that clearly does value some lives, whether deserving or not, much more highly than others: The well-born, the well-connected, the improbably lucky and, most visibly of all, the vacuously pretty.

This is not to say that we aren’t fortunate to live in a free country, or that the fix is in, in every case, from day one: It is in fact possible in economically free nations to be born in a housing project or hovel and through resilience, creativity, and determination, still achieve greatness. If we have a strong enough sense of self and are willing to work very hard and take risks and shrug off scorn and rejection, we can make something of our lives when others thought that we would be nothing. (The ones who thought we would be nothing are usually in our own social class and, likely as not, in our own families; those in higher classes are not even aware of our existence.)

Most of these self-made people bring innovative new products or services to the world, but there is one very unusual type of person who is, in effect, selling the “nothing” itself, which is to say the very circumstances of poverty and cruelty and criminally neglectful parents that have destroyed so many similar lives before they could even begin.

That person is, of course, the author who publishes a successful memoir.

And indeed, it is this career “arc”, a staple of popular culture since before Horatio Alger, and a surefire provider of vicarious thrills and reassurance to those that are struggling in their own lives, that has propelled the memoir genre to its present heights of popularity.

Most of the successful memoirs of recent years follow the same path: The author is born into sordid circumstances, and/or creates those circumstances for himself (usually drugs or drinking are involved), but discovers an unsuspected inner strength that allows him to clamber out of the mud and spittle and blood to achieve something substantial.

And the evidence that he has created something substantial? The memoir itself, the very book that you hold in your hands. Because the personal memoir is usually written by someone we’d never have heard of unless, self-reflexively, he’d written a personal memoir, the book becomes in part a totemic object for the reader, tangible and readable proof that they, too, can arise from miserable circumstances and achieve success.

But some memoirs are better than others, either because they’re more emotionally honest, or because they have an amazing story to tell, or because the prose sings. Or, we would hope, all of the above.

So what happens in the case of a memoir that isn’t particularly well written or distinctive? Is it then wholly a totemic object and nothing more? Is the author successful only because she is a published author, and not because she is anything else?

And if that is the case, the next question becomes this: Why, in a world of billions of people, most of whom have had to struggle to get to where they are today, is this author’s story deserving of being memorialized in print while so many countless others are not?

At this point, we arrive at the dark secret and knotty contradiction at the heart of the memoir genre. The contemporary memoir celebrates the capacity of any human being, no matter how difficult their circumstances or how unimportant their family might have been, to make something of themselves. But at the same time, it reminds the reader that only a select few are deemed important enough to indulge in this public celebration.

Thus, the memoir is the only contemporary art form that directly addresses the question, “are some lives more important than others?” yet manages to answer that question in two directly contradictory forms, depending on whether one is looking at the genre’s explicit message or its implicit, and forbidden, one.

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image