Some coffee and wisdom from the ever eccentric Augusten Burroughs
It’s 1983 in Chicago, and a pregnant Carmen is getting married to Matt. During their somewhat bohemian wedding reception, we meet Carmen’s siblings: Nick, who’s dressed in drag and is getting stoned with his girlfriend, Olivia; and Alice who goes off to have sex with the other bridesmaid, Maude, the groom’s sister. All of them are ‘in their last hours of making mistakes with small prices.’
All at various degrees of unraveling, Nick, Alice, Maud and another friend leave the party in the early hours of the morning with Olivia at the wheel. Soon after, they hit a 10-year-old girl who seems to have appeared from nowhere. The girl dies.
This one incident will forever remain a stain on the lives of those involved, showing them in their true light.
Olivia spends several years in jail, and the book charts their lives over the next 25 years; we are with them through divorce, parental bullying, familial hostility, drug addiction, eating disorders, success and failure. Yet this is not the big, redemptive story line you’d expect. No massive life lessons are learnt. Guilt is the only common denominator that permeates the entire text, simmering in the background of their lives, never letting them go.
So this book is a difficult one because none of the character’s lives are explicitly and overtly affected by this incident. And I do admire Anshaw for not making this an obvious read, however, this means that the events of this book are placed firmly in the dips and lifts of ordinary, everyday life. The chapters alternate between the three siblings at various stages of their lives and are temporally anchored by events such as 9/11. Nick pulls the family down with him through his lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction, Alice’s flourishing art career is tainted by her unfruitful infatuation with Maude (who doesn’t acknowledge that she’s gay), and the moral Carmen struggles with her role as both mother and wife in a rapidly changing world where people appear to have ‘lost interest in belief itself, as though belief were tennis, or French film.’
The book is a quiet one and can admittedly be quite slow in places but Anshaw writes exceptionally well. She truly delves into the minds of her characters, lifting them off the page and bringing them to life. The little girl is never there but always present, linking these people through shared experience:
‘There’s still this connection between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add as up, you always have to carry the one.’
What we ultimately learn is that tragedy is a complex contradiction that can completely change the person you are while at the same time changing absolutely nothing. In all its mess, life goes on.
I’ve developed a (bad) habit where I constantly buy books, both old and new, and don’t quite get round to reading them. My bookshelves have long been too full for new company, so these new books now sit in piles around my bedroom floor. I sometimes thumb through them and dream of one day actually reading them. I hate it when life gets in the way of a good book. I have to get my reading on.
Just in case, like me, you just open without a care in the world, now you know it’s spine suicide. You’ve been killing books your whole life and the authorities are closing in on you. However, no one will hold it against you if you don’t spend 10 whole minutes opening the damned thing and just read the bloody book. As they say, f*ck it.
After reading and enjoying Other Lives But Mine a month or so ago, I thought I’d give literature in translation another go. This time I thought I’d venture to Germany and picked up a book called Alice by a widely read writer called Judith Hermann. I’d be lying if I said the breathtaking cover didn’t play a large part in my decision. I honestly cannot get over this cover, so damned beautiful!
So maybe all European writers have a particular interest in mortality, because funnily enough, this book is ALSO a contemplation on death. It tells of waiting for death to come, of when it occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, of the silence that comes from the questions left unanswered for decades when a person takes their own life, and primarily of what is left behind after death.
The novella is made up of five different interconnected narratives, five separate stories brought together by Alice, the central character whose life is punctuated with instances of death. Each section is named after the person who is either dead or dying in the story. It’s very postmodern in style, with very sparse almost bare prose, and with this direct style of writing, there is no explanation of how Alice may know the people we encounter in these stories. Some small inferences may be made, but much is left to the reader to fill in for themselves. This can be a little disorientating, which is how I feel you’re meant to feel when reading postmodern literature.
This book is about death, yet in a way it skirts around the actual occurrence itself, instead detailing the mundane, the specifics of everyday life, never attempting to describe emotion or anything much beyond facts. In its listing of banalities it somehow normalises death, makes death a part of everyday life, something that happens between swimming in a lake and buying ice cream from a petrol station (which I suppose it is).
An example of this is in the story, ‘Malte’. Alice arranges to meet up with someone from her late uncle Malte’s past; her uncle who killed himself before Alice was even born. The account of this meeting is meticulously detailed in its awkwardness, yet we learn nothing more about the reasons for her uncle’s suicide. However, there are minute snippets of information that can lead you to your own conclusions as to what may have happened all those years ago. And so this is how Judith Hermann speaks – without words.
There was a part of the final story that really did resonate with me, however. Alice is sorting through the things of someone who was central to her life when in a jacket pocket she comes across a crumpled bakery bag with a half-eaten almond horn in it. Such a small, trivial thing all of a sudden becomes significant. Little pockets of someone’s life left behind in their literal pockets, evidence that this person was once a living breathing human being. They once went to bakeries and ate almond horns. They are now reduced to things and memories and anecdotes. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this will make a lot of sense.
After reading the book, despite the entire thing being from her point of view, you don’t feel like you know Alice at all. You only have a vague outline of the person she may be, but even that is a stretch. I appreciate that this is indeed intentional and the point of the whole postmodern thing, but I found it be unsettling. It was perhaps a little too reserved and devoid of feeling for me, though I appreciate that this is in fact what many will love about it.
I’m sure many critics would say that her complete detachment and almost matter of fact way of describing events is what makes this novel such a great accomplishment, for the power of the narrative lies in what is left unsaid. An essay I could have written for a class in university would have probably said something along those lines too, but now, reading without a motive makes me question whether we can rate a writer for what they do not write, for the gaps they leave in their narrative for their readers to fill in? Can we?