Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lost in Place by Mark Salzman

It sometimes feels as if everyone wants to write a memoir. Libraries and senior centers offer memoir-writing classes. The growing interest in genealogy, aided by TV shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Finding Your Roots" and by the ability to do research on the internet, also encourages people to record their memories so future generations will have more than raw data. After a certain age, writing a memoir can seem like a way to make sense out of—or at least impose some order on—your life. Heck, even I've tinkered with the memoir.

But while it is one thing to record incidents and experiences for one's family, it is something very different to expect strangers to be interested. Unless one has led an extraordinary life of public activity, most people's experiences are just not that interesting. At the same time, I believe that even the most ordinary life can be made interesting by extraordinary writing. (The ideal, of course, is a memoir of an noteworthy life by a brilliant writer. But there are not many of those.)

Mark Salzman's memoir, Lost in Place, is subtitled "Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia;" he grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It covers his teenage years, from age 13 in 1972 to age 18 or 19 in 1979 or so. He published the memoir in 1995 when he was 36. It was his fourth book. His first, Iron & Silk, a memoir of teaching English and learning martial arts in China was exceptionally well-received in 1986. His third, The Soloist, a novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He's no slouch as a writer.

And that's what kept me reading through his adolescent experiences in learning kung fu, the cello, experimenting with pot, applying to Yale to avoid the last year of high school (and getting admitted!), smashing up his mother's car, and star gazing with his father. Of his father, he writes: "Every morning he left the house looking as if someone had tied a hundred-pound sandbag across his shoulders, and every evening he came back looking as if the sand had gotten wet." Of his kung fu teacher's demonstration of control, he writes, "...two of us [got] on our hands and knees while a third, wearing no shirt, lay on his back on top of us with a watermelon on his stomach. Sensei would blindfold himself, do some loud breathing exercises, then split the watermelon with a samurai sword. It became an especially dramatic feat from our point of view if we could smell liquor on his breath as he did his breathing exercises."

Salzman's life is not special except, of course, that every life is special. Reading the memoir stirred up memories of my own adolescent fantasies, dreams, and angst. I think he would like to leave the reader with a message, the answer to the unanswerable questions: "How do we live if we know we must die? Why bother with any of this, since none of it will matter when the sun burns up and the earth turns into a cold cinder? Why bother with anything?"

The best answer is probably still: "Because bothering is still the best game in town." Not, I suspect, an answer Salzman found while still an adolescent searching for enlightenment before he could drive, but a satisfying way to end his book.

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