Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Three (Young Womanhood)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
I haven't returned to Blake Nelson's Girl since I read it, and I don't remember how I found it, unless it was a random bookstore purchase.* So, this overview comes almost completely from memory, which may be faulty.

Girl takes place in Portland, Oregon during the mid-1990s and has at its center a girl (duh) named Andrea. It's written in teenage vernacular, in breathless sentences. I loved it. I loved it because it spoke to me like The Breakfast Club speaks to young humans who are actually living in the hyperemotional, high-stakes, impossibly obnoxious teenage years. It didn't condescend to me, and it didn't minimize the thoughts and feelings of teenage girls - universal and embarrassing as they may be - and it helpfully described a variety of exotic experiences I could have been having and wasn't (sex, drugs, rock & roll).

Unless it has an expiration date of 1999, it'd be a great book to give to girls who feel misunderstood and/or parents who are exasperated with their daughters. The book validated my obsessions and wildly swinging moods and general uphill-facing difficulty with living in the world at 15. If Andrea lived it, and someone put her in print, then I wasn't wrong or crazy. I had no idea then, and still really have no idea, how Nelson simulated a teenage girl's voice so well that I was not only fooled by his rendering, but ached from how much of my own inner weather he depicted through her.

Part of what was so great about Girl was that it captured being a teenage girl in 1994, the year I turned 13. Portland was another world compared to the mid-Atlantic, but the time, the national feeling, was encapsulated perfectly. And, to sing a refrain that I promise will cease after this post, the sexuality in Girl was interesting and helpful. Andrea is obsessed with this one guy (a Jordan Catalano type) throughout the book, and my memory is that she has safe sex with another guy and then unsafe, more exploitative sex with the obsession guy later. She isn't coerced, exactly, but she's willing to do more that compromises her, because OMG it's HIM. In reading, I could see this, and understand not only how she found herself in that position but also how fucked up it was. This dynamic echoed in my own life, as I think it naturally will for people who are still in formative stages (girls and boys, probably), until I smartened up in my mid-20s.

Speaking of sexuality, then came Anaïs Nin.

In preparing this post, I decided not to make a full-fledged commentary on Nin herself, because it would stretch to thousands of words. (Plus, Sady Doyle wrote this terrific summary for the Guardian - v. helpful.) She's an intriguing figure, and one of those whom I find dodgy personally, and don't agree with altogether, but admire enormously. For years on end I read and reread her work and read about her, through college and beyond. I'm still reading about her, still waiting for the rest of her unexpurgated journals to be released, still thinking about her bizarre writing practices and the unethical shape of many of her decisions and her willingness to be subjugated to lesser male talents and her near-unrecognizable breed of feminism and so on and so forth. I love Anaïs Nin. I love thinking about her and reading her words. She will never fail to fascinate me.

I started with a copy of Henry & June, recommended to me by a friend of my mother's who became a friend of mine. (By "recommended" I mean that it's a book he said was important to him, so I decided to read it myself.) The reputation of Henry & June, and of Nin herself, is profoundly linked to sexuality, but that was a lesser aspect of what interested me (then and now) about Nin's work. The main thing is the style. Her voice maintains itself across rambles into widely varying topics, across significant shifts in identity (wife to writer to lover to child to woman). Her sentences are long and lovely, silken ropes twisting and catching against other textures. Her confidence is stunning; she maintains a terrific indifference to whether the reader understands or can follow or thinks she's doing something interesting. And the length of it all! Like Proust, she doesn't care how long it takes to get where she's going, where she's going is less the point than how she gets there, and she has as much investment in detail as she does in turning points.

As I learned more about Nin, I decided to record my life as fervently and seriously as she recorded hers. I became a diarist, too. I filled three huge journals before I sank into such a serious depression that I gave it up, but for the first time, because of her, I wrote as much as I wanted. Granted, I was in my early 20s, in a garrulous life stage, but what Nin did, very critically to where we are right now, me writing this and you reading it, was give me permission to write how and what I wanted to. She gave me the gift of voice on the page: committing the monologue in my skull to the physical world. Making that voice ring like a bell, recognizable across whatever I wrote.

There's more. She taught me that a writer writes uncountable words in her lifetime, and that not all of them are worth publishing, but all are worth writing. She taught me that a true writer's voice is unafraid, and unaffected, and that the only necessary element is having something to say. She taught me that people, real people, are bottomlessly interesting as long as they write the truth about themselves.

Too, she taught me that longhand is the best way for me to write. I kept a Livejournal in my early 20s (now lost, thank God) and a Wordpress blog in my late 20s, and wrote many thousands of words in both. Those were exercises to develop my voice as a writer, as is the Fictator, right here. But none of them is as helpful to me as dragging a pen across a lined page.

So that was what Anaïs Nin, in general, meant to me when I first read her. As to what Incest in particular meant to me: it's potentially the most salacious of the volumes of her diary that have been published unexpurgated, because she has sex with (among others) her husband, Henry Miller, Otto Rank, Antonin Artaud, and her biological father. The book also bears a kind of passion and verve not replicated in any of her other work. Henry & June is contained within it. I found it because after reading H&J I wanted lots, lots more, so I read Incest and its follow-up, Fire. The former is the one I've returned to. (I didn't really care about her affair with Gonzalo, which is the most significant throughline of Fire.) Although the sexual aspect of the book presents itself most immediately in my mind when I think of it, it's only somewhat the reason why Incest fascinated me so.

It's mainly the other stuff. The style, the voice, the constant shifting of topic and mood, the fullness of the writing, the gauze of civilization and consistency that she threw back in every damn paragraph to show her self, her inconsistent, immature, unabashed self. She showed the distinction between woman and girl at a time when I needed to understand it. She demonstrated that a woman is multitudes at a time when I had begun to feel pressure to be a single self. She seized life, largely on her terms, without concern about propriety or conformity, and inspired me to do the same.

That covers my literary life up to my mid-twenties. From here on the territory is more often cerebral than bodily, so if these past two posts have been squicky for you, come around again next time.

*Wait! The Amazon entry tells me it was serialized in Sassy [RIP, greatest girl magazine of all time, OF ALL TIME], which is probably how I found it. 

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