Rainy Daze: Anne Lamott's drippy sentiments make her the Martha Stewart of the maudlin set.
Anne Lamott's overrated and over-emoted writing brings our fin-de-siècle values into question
By Paulina Borsook
When I was 17, I spent a summer in Marin County, where as often as I could I'd wander into Tiburon, to rejoice in the views of the bay. I was an au pair for my sister who lived in Mill Valley, and I spent a lot of time in the tree-shaded public library of that bohemian burb. It was there I found a book that made me feel less alone, written by someone named Lamott, a book which spoke exactly to where I was and how I was feeling, confused and despairing. It was startling in its candor and it got me shaking my head and saying "So true, so true" as I went along reading it. What courage the author had, to write what so many people feel but never have the nerve to say!
Kenneth Lamott, this remarkable writer was. The book was Anti-California and it spoke lyrical hard truths with a strong personal writerly voice. It never occurred to me that today's "West Coast Live" regular, Salon columnist, best-selling professional single-mom-and-Christian Anne Lamott could have been any relation to this man who so moved me 25 years ago. Could such a tough-minded dad have created such a tender-minded daughter?
Indeed he had. The daughter of Ken has gotten down with the '90s as her dad was up with the '60s. Unlike her dad, she and I live our grown professional lives in the era of memoir, where the mushy, the middlebrow and the squishy female sell. More women now buy books than men, and even the Holocaust can have a value proposition if it's made to be heartwarming.
Her father's strong feelings constrained by language, the deployment of the personal only to sustain larger discourse about society, the power of emotional continence--so dated, so '60s, so dead-white-male canonical, n'est-ce pas? In a time when Kathie Lee Gifford can write in her own bestselling song about how she commented to darling husband Frank that post-birth-of-son-Cody her breasts had gotten droopy like lamb's ears, Lamott senior's passion restrained by decorum is as dated as expecting women to dress up in stockings and high heels to go shopping at I. Magnin.
Next to Anne, a woman of my own cohort, I feel so deficient--as a person, as a writer. I have always wanted to be bulimic or anorexic or do too many drugs or drink too much or have too many affairs with married men--then it would be easy to explain what was wrong with me and I could get into a 12-step program and I would know just what to do then and who to do it with and how to name it. I wish I could have a life so cinematic in the American way that I could find redemption in an African American church with a female preacher. I was married in a synagogue by a Reconstructionist rabbi and I sing the white gospel music that's called Sacred Harp, but nothing works, nullis pretti, there's no commercial potential, as Frank Zappa used to say, honoring the spirit of Edgar Varese--and even he, in the last years of his life, had taken to calling himself an entrepreneur.
Packaging is everything, and as hard as I've tried to sell out, I just don't have Lamott's grasp of the master narratives of our time, those classic Gentile-American ones of waywardness and redemption. As the chairman of my M.F.A. program used to say, some people have a gift for being famous, just as some people have perfect pitch or the gift for making money.
In Anne's life, as it's supposed to be, when someone close fails and fades with terminal illness, it's with grace and humor and all are hallowed when angels bear the gallant afflicted to their rest. In my life, when that soulmate of mine lay dying of AIDS before it was fashionable to do so, he was scared and angry and increasingly deprived of the grace he'd had as a well man. He pleaded and wept and remained in denial and there were no spiritual revelations for the taking. And I was terrified at his leaving--how could I know I could exist without the exchange of the nasty exclusionary-to-others remarks we made whose real purpose was to reassure the other that "I see what you see"? When I held his hand for the last time as he sat in a wheelchair in the hospital garden, I told him how furious I was with his dying--how dare he?
My victim of a catastrophic disease didn't have the literary good taste to repent or conform to any of the current acceptable genres: either the beautiful soul tragically abandoned by a heartless society (no, his family and friends stood by him) or that of the innocent (whether simply a homophilic bon vivant or, better still, a photogenic mother or child who obtained the virus sex-free) suffering with the piety of a lamb. Nope, the Jesus in my Pietá set about acquiring the disease as methodically as he could, following always in his useless, dissolute older brother's footsteps, who had taken his life so much more directly (an overdose in a bathtub did nicely) several years before. Not bestseller material, this: AIDS as suicide just won't sell. A fatal failure of nerve can hardly inspire one (either the sufferer or the chronicler) to turn to the grace of God.
So that's the difference between me 'n' Anne on death. What about life?
Kids! What a concept! Anne has it right: take on the role of valiant life-affirming mother, never mind if the right partner-relationship can't be found. It's all for the sake of the child. It's a story that's now, that's true, that's Oprah. Me, I'd be too worried that the dysfunctional childhood of mine might not give me the right idea how to do it, that my parents' deep narcissism and harmful inattention might have meant some important lessons might not have gotten transmitted, that perhaps my long series of failed relationships was telling me something, that my father's psychotic callousness might have left a residue I might well consider not letting any child voluntarily get contaminated by. Worse, any child of mine might be like Pynchon's Slothrop, his childhood cannibalized for his father's greatest work. We know what monsters writers are, where everything is material and no one and nothing is beyond use. No one has any privacy anymore anyway, so why should her son?
When I contemplate my penury and obscurity, but with Anne as my current inspiration, I think of all the kindly friends who have advised me to mine my own Rotten Childhood (second-trimester barely legal abortion, a gunshot wound to the head inflicted accidentally on purpose by a very close friend, running away, familial physical and mental cruelty, madness and death aplenty). Surely, these well-wishers have said, there's enough for a movie of the week? Or at least to do a treatment for the options for one?
But you know, I just don't think What Happened to Me is intrinsically interesting--which used to be the criterion for what got written and published. But no more. Service journalism/news-you-can-use (in Anne's case, how to dry out, how to be a single mom, how to find sops for the holes in your soul and, best of all, how to be self-referential and write about how to write--all hot topics), not intrinsic interest, is the order of the day. So wrongheaded of me ('twas always thus, lacking the good luck or good sense to be deviant in socially sanctioned ways--saying "No thank you, I'll think I'll save it for later" when offered a tab of windowpane in the midst of anti-war demonstrations is such proof if there ever needed to be any) to believe that trading on things as an adult that made you miserable as a kid was letting them run/ruin your life twice.
So hail, Lamott Junior! So fresh, so phat, so au courant! Marla Maples and Madonna have spiritual advisers, literature has become an endless stream of "that reminds me of me" for both reader and writer, and auditionees for MTV's Real Life can only be lauded for at least putting some bounds on their needs to get attention. She's got it all: clichés, self-absorption, sentimentality, the piety of a Victorian angel-mother of the hearth, children as the self-regarding prop to a life saved from a seedy past of toxic parents, bad choices and poor impulse-control. Lamott pere would be proud of the success of Lamott fille.
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