Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Layer Cake, in Letters: "The Mistress's Daughter," by A.M. Homes

“As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together.” This graceful sentence, coming as it does early on in A.M. Homes’ new memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” has delighted me, all by itself, brought me into a text that continually surprised me, and returned me to one of my favorite writers, all in one fell swoop. That’s a lot of work for one sentence to do, and to do so very well. So I feel like I should begin by thanking Homes for having written it. The whole book does some astonishing things, but I keep coming back to that one line.

First off, was the shock of recognition. It’s nothing so shocking, really. I’m sure plenty of bored suburban kids across America have put in their time with those World Book pages, folding and unfolding them, this way and that. But for just a moment, I felt the stiffness of those pages, against the others in the volume, heard their crackle as they folded in and out, and nearly yelled out loud, “Me too! Me too!”

Then there’s the contribution it makes to the spare structure of Homes narrative. "The Mistress's Daughter" is about a lot of things. Identity, storytelling, family, and language among them. It takes as its point of departure the author's less than storybook reunion with her birth parents when she was in her thirties, living on Charles St., and becoming successful as a novelist. Thanks to this sentence, and others like it, I didn’t need much in the way of direct description of the life she’d led with her adoptive family. I got it. It was somewhat privileged, it was sometimes boring, it was all in all pretty good, though not without it’s problems, some of which she does in fact delve into. But much more than that would have distracted me from the heart of the story being told, much less, and I’d likely have wondered what it was she had to hide.

Finding it so early in the book, on page seven, to be exact, was important for me too. I hadn’t quite made up my mind about “The Mistress’s Daughter,” yet. It is so many things about which I am ambivalent. To begin with, it is a memoir. When they are good, well, they can be very, very good. But when they are bad, they’re really quite horrid aren’t they? And, possibly worse yet, it’s an adoption memoir. I remember reading “The Search for Anna Fischer,” when I was little. It was one of the first such books, possibly even the very first, and is often credited with jumpstarting the adoptees rights movement. I remember it’s having been part of a Reader’s Digest condensed anthology that I was carting around one summer. Who knows where that thing came from? I remember reading it at the lake, and in some doctor’s waiting room. Most of what I remember about the story itself, is a lot of some poor woman trying to get people to give her information they had, but weren’t allowed to give her, which I thought was stupid and unfair, but not terribly interesting, and then an anti-climactic meeting with her birth mother. Having finally asked my parents so many times if they are really, truly sure I don’t have any DNA but theirs that even I suppose I must believe them, adoption memoirs hold even less appeal for me.

The title, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” was intriguing, obviously, but almost too much so. As though perhaps someone in Viking’s PR department had been charged with coming up with a titillating title to boost sales of a mediocre book. Things like that do happen sometimes, you know. Then there’s Homes herself, a writer about whom I’ve been squarely on the fence for years.

Do you remember that nineties literary trend, so trendily referred to as, “transgressive fiction”? The best known work of “transgressive fiction" would probably be Brett Easton Ellis's novel "American Psycho," later adapted into the film starring Christian Bale, in which a questionably reliable narrator by the name of Patrick Bateman enjoys impressing us with his knowledge of eighties era designer labels, sexual prowess, and creativity in dismembering women. Transgressive fiction could have meant all kinds of things, but mostly, it turned out to be a convenient label for books dealing in transgressions upon the usually female body, with literary aspirations thrown in. It was a marketing ploy cleverly disguised as a literary movement, or maybe a literary movement co-opted and creatively transgressed upon by marketing departments until it found itself at the bottom of some river, in a million little pieces. But I digress. A few of those books lived up to their literary aspirations, maybe even managed to commit some more interesting sorts of transgressions. One of those was "The End of Alice," by A.M. Homes.

I loved everything about "The End of Alice." It's an impossibly beautiful book about unimaginably ugly things. I loved the language, the structure, and narrative. I loved the ways in which it surprised me, and the simple fact that it did. I loved the unclassifiable follow up, "Appendix A: An Elaboration on the Novel 'The End of Alice'". I loved the sense it gave me that the writing I wanted to do myself was possible, and that someone else was out there thinking about words and stories, and even about bodies, in a similar sort of way. I loved that book.

Which, of course, led me to read more of her books. But it just wasn't the same. It's not that there's anything wrong with "In A Country of Mothers," or "Jack," or "Music for Torching," or any of the rest of them. They just haven't done for me whatever exactly it was "The End of Alice," did, haven't given me that same gift. And so, unfairly I'm sure, but that can't be helped, reading each has felt in some way like a betrayal. As if, having shown me that she could write something that spoke to me so clearly, Homes owed it to me to keep it up, and was simply choosing not to deliver the goods. The reading of someone else's words is really such an odd sort of intimacy, isn't is?

So, there I am in the bookstore, doing the thing I do, where I read the first few pages of a book, and only buy it if I cannot possibly imagine living happily without completing it. There being, after all, so many books, and so very little time, not to mention money. I'm giving "The Mistress's Daughter," it's chance. And I come to that sentence. "As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together." Not only did it tell me this was most definitely the book I wanted that day, it made me wonder if my A.M. Homes, the one I'd loved so much, once upon a time, might not have come back to me. And so she has.

There is something I love about the language of the body. The solid sounds of the words we use to describe something so fragile, broken down into its very smallest parts. The ironic abstraction of a skeleton on the page. Perhaps the best thing Homes' sentence does is to provide her reader with a key to "The Mistress's Daughter". I'll give you a hint: You don't always need layer upon layer of acetate anatomy pages to build a person. Sometimes, the way words and pages layer themselves up along the way will do the trick just fine.

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