MY DAUGHTER GAVE ME a book I do not understand. It’s a wonderful feeling. Settling into bed last night, my first night with it, I was thrown out from under my comforter and tossed into a place of cold, hard perplexion and fear. Never happier after not understanding the first page, I had a similar reaction to not understanding the second. Didn’t she say this was a memoir? Suddenly I found myself wondering what is a memoir, and is this one? Gleeful, I plunged on.
Do you remember giving your parents the music, books , poetry – even the very thinking – of your generation? I do, and crazy as my household of origin was, we shared our books, our music, the poetry we read, like we were at a mad swap meet where everything left behind would be burned. By eight-years-of-age I could play my own version of whorehouse piano, the likes of which my dad had picked up and passed on from the speakeasies of Prohibition; my mother was a jazz baby, a stage door stalker of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Haggart, and so I made it a point to hear them both in concert. The expressions on the faces of my parents remains a favorite after-bubble image in my head when I looked up after reading them a college poem of mine into which I had slid the word erections. They lived to tell the tale. Brag, even.
And so my daughter has carried on a long family tradition of show and tell of the difficult sort. In her case, the book is The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and while my utter perplexion did not last long, the feeling of serenity of having a shared text, a family get-together of the literary sort, will get me through the holidays better than any hot toddy recipe, over-zealous card or gravy recipe update. Specifically, it will do so because the book was, at first, so foreign to me and, as she had told me numerous times, so deeply important to her. I had to read it.
The Argonauts is glorious and densely packed, deeply provocative and introduces (at least to most readers) the concept of “autotheory,” defiantly swapping the word “memoir,” for this in its classification of what the author describes in a subsequent interview as, “autobiographical writing that exceeds the boundaries of the “personal.”
Perhaps I am the last person on earth to read this wonderful book. Okay, perhaps not. If, like me, you set out to do so, you might first want to read this interview with the author in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It delves well into autotheory as well as much more. Consider the book a holiday gift from my family to yours.