In the most evocative moment of her autobiography, Carrie Brownstein describes seeing Madonna for the first time (this was her first gig). She speaks about the fever and anticipation, the careful ritual of dressing up, of becoming a fan. She barely evokes Madonna’s performance; rather she lingers on the excitement which came long before the gig, and reverberated long after.
It seems that, somehow, much of Madonna has crystallised in Brownstein. Though the ‘material girl’ does not appear again in the rest of the book, I had the feeling she haunted most of Brownstein’s adult life – she provided one of her earlier, most solid role-models. Others were to follow. Indeed, Brownstein constantly became other people; she inhabited hundreds of characters and transient moods. ‘I could play at bravery in the songs, I could play at sexiness or humor, long before I could actually be or embody any of those things. Sleater-Kinney allowed me to try on so many roles’ (p. 99).
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is littered with discarded costumes and thwarted ambitions; with indifferent roads and hotel rooms, dust and second-hand clothes, misshapes and mirrors, riot grrrl anger and teenage dreams of Olympia. There are dates, names and places, yet these become quickly muddled; merging into a hazy, mythical image of the ’90s.
The first part of the book is dedicated to the author’s childhood. In a disjointed and rather uncomfortable tale, the author coldly recounts her parents’ ‘shortcomings’. The second part is mostly concerned with the life of Sleater-Kinney, from recording sessions to hotel rooms to stages around the world. It’s a generic music autobiography. It was to be expected, but I still longed for fever and pure noise and magic. I hoped for a personality to materialise, a voice to emerge.
Regretfully, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl too often reads like a long, mechanical and joyless monologue, just another girl in another band. It feels raw and artless. What contributed to the magic of Sleater-Kinney (its spontaneity and primacy) doesn’t work on the page. It seems that the writer isn’t exactly sure why she’s writing, that she cares or thinks little about literature as an art form. Rather like an uninspired and docile schoolchild facing a forbidding blank page, Brownstein writes because she has been asked to. The child writes everything which crosses her mind, without looking.
Meanwhile she keeps intently, hopefully staring outside; puzzling over other, more important matters. Brownstein seems to be unconsciously running away from something which we don’t see and which she never cares to show us. Her heart is somewhere else. As I was reading I couldn’t shake the uneasy sensation that Brownstein was trapped in her own diary, trapped in a protective cage of words she had unwittingly, almost tragically, fashioned (against) herself.
Some fans of Sleater-Kinney may feel interested in Brownstein’s patchwork of facts. As a reader, I felt discouraged. The written text represented my only place of encounter, of contact, with Brownstein-as-character (for, not knowing her as a ‘real’ person, I can solely relate to what she writes). There’s nothing else between the writer and me save for a slippery territory of words. And those words are thinner than ice; flat, inexpressive. None made me dream; they left no impression.
I first thought this was a sad, moody and perhaps impatient impression, that Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was another of these hastily, half-heartedly composed (but so highly profitable) ‘star’ autobiographies. These have always existed. But why present it as something else? The British version of the book was misleadingly published by Virago, an exacting and pioneering publisher of women’s writing since the ’70s (the publisher of George Egerton, Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, Anaïs Nin, etc.).
Less cynically, I now believe that Brownstein’s book is not really meant or ready for sharing, not yet. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: is an incomprehensibly premature (and therefore unnecessary) autobiography. After all, Sleater-Kinney have just reformed – Sleater-Kinney is alive. The story is not over.
Before Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull or Ari Up committed their lives to paper (and this is perhaps one of the most severe, demanding acts one can make, for autobiographies are that which will outlive us), they lived and grew old. They became distant and different; and through writing they resurrected and re-experienced former selves (as if, truly, they were others).
Brownstein, however, is still growing and grappling with Sleater-Kinney. She cannot possibly let go of the past, because the past is still present. If she writes again, it will be from another place, another point in time, once the past has happened for good, once the good times are really gone and she has become who she always was. For now, Brownstein cannot and must not look back.