Reviews

The Wrestling Party by Bett Williams

Garrett Chaffin-Quiray

Williams's book encourages a sense of the everyday and normal, enough so as to remove binary distinctions like us/them and queer/straight from the start.


The Wrestling Party

Publisher: Alyson Publications
Length: 194
Price: $12.95 (US)
Author: Bett Williams
UK publication date: 2003-12
Amazon

Of all nonfiction forms, perhaps none is more suitable for framing unusual personal experience than the memoir, wherein characters and events are drawn from memory. A lack of reliance on plot or narrative arc allows crazy adventures to ensue. Reportage ascends and eccentricity reins supreme. Good memoirs also center on individuals whose otherness, however determined, can nonetheless become familiar.

The Wrestling Party burrows into the life of Bett Williams, seemingly to debunk a term like "identity," as in "identity politics," about which she expresses dislike, even though her publisher, Allyson Publications, is a haven for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender literature. Then there is the complication of the book's likeliest marketplace, further limiting her struggle to acquire a sense of herself.

As "chick lit," The Wrestling Party exists in a generic ghetto characterized by certain stylistic conventions and cultish devotees. Concerned with a lesbian point-of-view that is self-conscious about distinctions from the mainstream (white, middle class, male, etc.), Williams's book encourages a sense of the everyday and normal, enough so as to remove binary distinctions like us/them and queer/straight from the start. In short, The Wrestling Party, despite its unusual subject matter -- including golden showers and fanatical devotion to Tara Lipinsky - ultimately maintains that Williams's emotional experiences are painfully typical. Aiding this revelation is the fact that she's also a keen observer of her times and one capable of transforming these observations into fast- moving prose.

In 1998, after publishing her first novel, Girl Walking Backwards, Williams's acclaim spread. Describing this period in The Wrestling Party, she writes that it was the culmination of her 20-something malaise about being overeducated, unmotivated, and fascinated with My So-Called Life. What follows is a wonderful re-, or maybe mis-, interpretation of that cancelled TV show and so it goes, as Williams skewers her foibles and unusual experiences, identifying cultural patterns with a rich sense of humor.

But The Wrestling Party is similarly riddled with an absence of structure, presumably the result of the financial success of Girl Walking Backwards. Meaning, Williams is now an out lesbian and successful Gen X writer/reporter. She's also upper middle-class, given her privileged Southern California background, however dysfunctional, and she has traveled and lived in numerous places in the western United States. This varied geography plays a role in her book, as do references to her troubled upbringing. What's missing is a sense of how she pays her way and how she gets along day-to-day in building up to each of the book's adventures, which ostensibly orbit an affair with a woman named Annika.

While it's a terrific ride to read about her striptease with friends, her habits for stalking old loves, a night of dancing at a New Mexico disco, hosting Thanksgiving, attending a k.d. lang concert, or the many references she makes to Courtney Love, there's an unease associated with her dashed hopes, idiosyncrasies, and shame. This is the book's weakness.

By relying on digression-turned-confession, a crutch of the memoir form, Williams interrupts her adventures, leaving a sour taste of "so what." She becomes self-important and feels the need to unburden her troubles, transforming her appeal from the struggle for affection and companionship to the extraordinary lengths she's gone through in order to find them. Moving towards the pattern of a diary and away from the investigative report, or from spectacles of the unfamiliar to egocentrism, she loses her verve and excitement.

We read diaries to uncover secrets about people we know. We read memoirs to revel in worlds of which we know little and from which we are therefore excluded. When the two converge, we struggle to learn more about the author and, in this case, we're left to wonder why this "story" exists in the first place. Why does it matter? What's at stake in learning Bett Williams volunteered, as a teenager, at a rape crisis center because she wanted to meet an older woman, whom she met and fell for, and who eventually served as the basis for a somewhat damning article she wrote for the magazine Out?

After all the descriptions of masturbation, beer drinking, and casual sex, for Williams, it ultimately comes down to feeling that her work is supported and that she matters: "Thank you for carrying it, for carrying me. You never said to my face that you understood love mattered in just this way. But you showed up." Written about a reading in which she took part, her words express longing and gratitude in the face of a fractured, multi-faceted lesbian community.

Perhaps this is the theme of The Wrestling Party. In embracing her community, however unruly and scattered it may be, her book presents a new youth culture, both open-minded and curious. Or perhaps the book's central idea isn't so overblown. Might the book be meant to simply demonstrate how normal Williams really is despite being so seemingly abnormal?

Then there are small kernels of wisdom she sprinkles throughout the book to distract us, all leading to the eponymous party, richly described through the humorous pseudonym of a ringside announcer called Shawna Blackwell. Williams writes: "Real relationships are a million times better than the ones you live out in your head," and "No one likes your mix tapes as much as you do." Sometimes veering toward an advice column, but often nearing a milestone of personal maturation, The Wrestling Party has moments of greatness. Still, it wallows in unrequited passions and the difficulty of self-expression -- both universal traits, for sure, but both equally dull.


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