Sunday, October 21, 2007

Troubled Tales

Yesterday and today I ignored most of the tasks that I need to accomplish so that I could read Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett.

It's the sort of book that I used to read a lot of when I was in graduate school. Mostly nonfiction tales of typically upper middle class women struggling against problems that were sometimes cast as character flaws -- mostly fashionable self-destructive behavior. Marya Hornbacher's Wasted. Dani Shapiro's Slow Motion. That kind of thing. Travels though mental illness, substance abuse, tumultuous relationships, and other bad decisions, centering around a woman who had attended Good Schools and who had all the the opportunity in front of her to be a conventional success, and then she messes it all up.

The thing about most of these stories is that they're told in the first person, narrated by the woman at the center of the book looking back on the chaos that she lived through. In some sense, it reminds me of what you hear about physical constants and the universe: if certain values were off by just a smidgen beyond a few decimal places, our universe wouldn't exist or our planet wouldn't support life or something else would go horribly wrong and there would be no one to measure the constants. The same sort of thing in most of these memoirs: The life needs to be messed up enough for it to be compelling reading, but in the end, the author finds the solution to her problems and pulls her life together enough to write a book. Upper middle class life is restored.

What made this book different is that Lucy, the damsel in distress, died in the book. I can't decide if I want to read Lucy's memoir, Autobiography of a Face.

I think that these books remind me of my female friends from high school. High school was the last time that I had female friends. There was one who carved "I hate me" into her arm while earning the highest GPA ever in the history of the school; she went to Princeton. Another who was tormented by her mother about her weight and who took an entire bottle of aspirin went to Yale. The two of them were pretty good friends and in high school regularly partied at Union and at North Adams State College, in hopes of hooking up with frat boys. (They had no luck at RPI.) Michelle, the anorexic, died in what would have been her sophomore year at Amherst.

They also tell me that my troubles are not that bad by comparison. I'm not about to lose my job or the important relationships in my life.

Of course if I keep this up and spend my weekends reading books that have nothing to do with my work, I suspect that there will be a bit more chaos in my life. But still nothing worth writing a book about.