Drinking: A Love Story
In last night’s class at Wesleyan, I taught two books I’ve never taught before. Jonathan Rosen’s brilliant meditation, The Talmud and the Internet, and Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. Both are books I know well, and I thought would be interesting additions to the syllabus for my course, which is called The Autobiographical Impulse. I like to mix it up when I teach, and bring in new works (new to my teaching them, that is) so that I continue to keep it fresh for myself. It was a pleasure to re-read Jonathan Rosen’s book, which is even better the second time around. It’s a moving and intellectually rigorous exploration of the ways in which a young man grapples with his own history–specifically, his two grandmothers: one who perished in the holocaust, and the other who lived a comfortable American life and whose dying wish was for a pastrami sandwich. Rosen’s thoughtful consideration of the talmud and the internet — the ancient and the modern, expansive, circular, with no periphery –acts as a perfect metaphor for the two parts of his family’s past he’s attempting (impossibly, of course) to reconcile.
The Caroline Knapp did not stand up to re-reading, sorry to say. Published in 1996, it was the first of the spate of addition-and-recovery memoirs, ushering in a decade of books like Running with Scissors, A Million Little Pieces, Smashed, and a dozen others that didn’t make it onto the radar. I remember, when I first read Drinking: A Love Story, that it felt original to me, and brave. What changed in this decade? The book, obviously, hadn’t changed. I suppose that I had–and that the fact of all those other look-at-me recovery stories makes me read the Knapp in a slightly (okay, more than slightly) jaundiced light. It has its moments of poetry, but ultimately it now seems self-indulgent. As a memoirist myself, I don’t feel good leveling that criticism at another writer’s memoir, particularly one that required a certain measure of courage to write, and to put out there in the world. I remember, when Slow Motion was first published, the way every bit of criticism felt incredibly personal. But here I am, doing it. Why does it even matter? Knapp died tragically young, at the age of 42, of lung cancer. (If she were alive I might not be blogging about this.) I suppose that re-reading the book made me think about what makes a memoir good: a measure of irony, of distance. The ability to make oneself a character in one’s own life, one’s own story. The knowledge that it is a story, above all. Perhaps Knapp, who had only stopped drinking a year before writing her memoir, had not developed enough distance to write out of what Frank O’Hara referred to in one of his poems as “the memory of my feelings”. An emotion–when experience in real time–whether rage, panic, grief, joy, you name it–is incoherent. But that emotion, observed, with distance, can become coherent.