Our town recently held a writers’ festival. I’d read at least something by most of the writers beforehand, but not JJ Lee. Well, his readings and talking about other people’s books completely sold me on his book The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit.
It’s a story about becoming an apprentice tailor, and about Lee’s childhood, and about his troubled relationship with his father, and about how important the clothes that we wear are, how they are ways we express our identity and the selves we want to be. Reading this book I learned how the lapels are the sexiest part of a suit, and how ticked off old Chinese tailors still are about jeans.
But Lee writes compellingly about his family too. At the festival his performances were incredibly crowd-pleasing and funny, and then he’d read a bit about sinking into the closet filled with the smell of his now-gone father and you’d want to cry. It’s an impressive impressive piece of work about intimacy among men. And now I kind of want to dress a little better.
Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is kind of a gonzo post-apocalyptic novel. One of the main characters is, in fact named Gonzo. But it’s also the story of how the world came to be this way, through the use of Go Away bombs that destroyed the world with no pesky fallout. Except for making the planet a place where nightmares become real.
The story starts with the narrator and Gonzo’s company of truckers and general bad-asses being called in to do a job, put out a fire, save the world. There’s a cataloguing of the various kinds of pencil-necks one finds in the world, ranked according to their dangerousness, and the idea that resonates through the book is introduced: being a professional means giving up your personhood to be part of a machine.
Can you see why I liked this one?
But then the first chapter is over and the trucks are rolling towards doom and glory and we drop back to childhood. We learn about being trained to fight ninjas by a daft elderly man, and having lots of sex as a political student, and absurd stupid wars featuring absurd terrible soldiers (and fearsomely brilliant ones) and terror and friendship. It’s awesome. And funny. And there are mimes.
I liked this better than Angelmaker, but that might be because I wasn’t trying to figure out how seriously to take it the whole time. It was the kind of crazy awesome book the world needs more of.
Alison Bechdel’s book Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a memoir, a genre I don’t find myself reading a lot of. If you’ve read through my archives here you see I’m mostly into things that definitely haven’t happened or couldn’t possibly happen. Travel among the stars, or dealing with mystical artifacts or whatever. But if all memoirs were as good as this, I’d probably be devouring more of them.
Oh, I suppose I should mention it’s a comic too. And I do read a lot of those. So maybe this isn’t that far out of my usual fare.
Bechdel’s book is mostly about growing up and dealing with her father’s homosexuality (at the same time she was coming out as a lesbian) and his criminal behaviour with some of his students, and his death. Which may have been a suicide.
She doesn’t tell it straightforwardly, but circles around events and brings things back and forth through time echoing dreams the way memory does at its best. It starts with the house her father was constantly renovating. It deals with life in a funeral home. There are neglected dreams and OCD episodes. It’s painful and terrible and everything seems fraught with meaning.
It’s very much a personal story. It’s the kind of story that makes you ask “how do the people she wrote about feel about this?” It’s courageous and self-absorbed in a way I can’t help but admire. Really great work.