Falling Room by Eli Hastings

Though Eli Hastings is quite young — he’s not quite thirty, he has seen a lot: the death of a brother, his parents’ divorce (and then his father’s disastrous second marriage and quick divorce), his father’s crippling accident, drug use/abuse, and eventual death, a friend’s collapse into schizophrenia, at least two stints in jail (one for drugs, the other for participating in the Seattle WTO protest in 1999). And, according to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover, his story is a simple one: teen rebellion after parental divorce. Happily, that’s not the case.

For what’s striking about Falling Room is its downplaying of motive. This is not a memoir that seeks to rationalize, justify, or otherwise understand the author’s decisions. Rather than psychologize his life in this way, Hastings presents a much more honest look at a difficult problem: how to find meaning in one’s life when, almost by definition, one’s perspective is always distorted. By facing this problem on his feet, Hastings has written a much more interesting memoir than his self-described “angst-ridden, infantile leftist lens” might lead one to expect.

Let’s start with that phrase, “infantile leftist lens.” That, when looking back upon an earlier period in time, he characterizes a point of view as “infantile” would obviously suggest that he’s outgrown it. But that’s hardly clear: Eli Hastings isn’t David Horowitz, and this isn’t an apologia for an abandoned leftism. He still goes to Cuba and Nicaragua looking for the true revolution, and, judging from his blog (http://www.elihastings.blogspot.com), it seems fair to say he’s not moving toward the center. At no point in the memoir does Hastings suggest what a mature leftism would be, or how his political views have changed.

He implies, however, that any attempt to say this explicitly would be misguided. One of Falling Room‘s most interesting chapters is a long reflection on a visit to Cuba. The trip is a comedy of misperception: Cubans can’t agree with one another about the status of La Revolucion or about the desirability of an American-style system; Hastings can’t reconcile their fantasies about the United States with his own experience, nor his own fantasies and perceptions about Cuba with what he’s being told. After a donkey-cart driver waxes eloquent about his desire to move to the U.S., Hastings has a quiet moment:

I pondered this question of cultural myths through two-thirds of a large cigar, but still couldn’t quite put my finger on what the danger might be in telling it like it is to those who’ve been misinformed.

From my seat, chicken wire — intended to keep birds out of the orchids, caged the moon. Then again, from my seat, an impoverished pueblo appeared content and absolutely at peace.

Distortions, these could be called. Or, just perspectives.

The juxtaposition here is clear: When perspective and distortion are synonymous, how can one “tell it like it is”? The danger he picks up on is less a threat from the other than the threat of, as it were, internal rebellion — of realizing, in the course of a straightforward attempt at dispelling “cultural myths,” that such an attempt is already caught up in a myth. This is a valuable insight, but it makes memoir writing a bit problematic.

In one of the founding texts of trauma theory (Unclaimed Experience, [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996]), in an essay about falling, Cathy Caruth writes of “the recognition that direct … reference to the world means, paradoxically, the production of a fiction.” As we’ve just seen, this recognition both haunts and enables Falling Room: Though experienced as a threat, it also lends dignity to the perceptions of others, and of oneself. Keeping this recognition in mind also clarifies Hastings’s occasionally quirky sense of grammatical reference and subordination.

What gives these meditations on reference some purchase is the light they shed on the strange state of middle-class adolescent masculinity in the United States. Hastings’s stories read like a checklist of a teenager’s totems of authenticity: graffiti, a visit to the wrong part of town, drugs, jail, more drugs, political protest, and more jail. (The miracle is that he didn’t start a nu-metal band — though he is busted with mushrooms en route to a Santana show, which is almost as good.) Nevertheless, Hastings has “a hard time confessing to absolute folly — and a hard time blaming all of my mischief on frustration with sorry schooling, screwed-up home life, or anything else.”

Falling Room‘s prose can veer into the purple, which is probably an occupational risk of the memoirist. It’s certainly a risk inherent in the strategy Hastings has set himself: Since he won’t give us a linear narrative of his experience, but rather limns it obliquely, he’s got to strive for just the right metaphor or analogy, and sometimes the strain shows. Other times, as when the Nicaraguans he meets in Los Angeles become “specters in a dream, somewhere ahead, beckoning but patient,” the subtle temporal shift from ghosts of the past to harbingers of the future works admirably.

One might expect the memoir of a 29-year-old to be brashly confident, brimming with the sense that the author’s life is full of meanings that lesser lights would do well to heed. Eli Hastings has written a more interesting thing, a self-effacing memoir that attests to the difficulty of knowing the truth of one’s own experience.