Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Story Break

This weekend, I went to the bookstore and came home with I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan and Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida. And who knew: There was a theme.

I missed the big huzzah when Boylan’s book She’s Not There came out; this book is another memoir. Boylan—who used to be James Finney Boylan—riffs in this one on the conceit of hauntedness. She spent her childhood in a haunted house; her father, at one point, is being treated for cancer; and—the theme!—she writes on making sense of the past, in light of the present.

Vida’s book is a novel but tackles a similar issue, albeit from a different angle: What happens when your past isn’t what you thought? Does it affect your present? In this case, the narrator find out, on the day of her father’s funeral, that he wasn’t her bio-father. Her mother has long been out of the picture.

Good times, great cognitive dissonance.

It all reminded me of what positive psychologist Martin Seligman wrote in Authentic Happiness—that you can have three distinct emotions about your past, present, and future. What he doesn’t say (pointedly, at least) is that for most of us, it’s human nature to make some sort of narrative out of the past, present, and future of our lives.

In the interview with the author at the end of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Vida talks about the philopher Galen Strawson’s essay “Against Narrativity.” Says Vida, “There’s a small percentage of people who don’t view anything they do now as being related to anything that’s happened in their past.”

It’s a pretty fascinating idea to me. It got me thinking about what we have to edit it out of our pasts to make the narrative run smoother (smootherly?), to make it feel as if we are the same continuous person from childhood till now. If I can be so immodest, I’m very good at making the narrative. So much so that when my sisters, Erin, usually, remind me of something my younger self did, I sometimes can’t remember it at all. And it’s unlikely that she’s fucking with me.
Speaking of narratives, Tracy has an interesting conversation going on about craft and Books You Love. Take a gander!


Tracy said...

Okay, weird! *Just now* I finished typing out my very favorite quote from my very favorite writer, Joan Didion, on the *exact same theme* -- who we used to be vs. who we are now.

Since the quote's still on my clipboard, I'm going to slam it in right here: "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."

Of course, it's kind of a universal topic, so perhaps it's not so extraordinary that we were both reading about it at the same time, but...still...I love coincidences even when they aren't really.

Christine Gresser said...

Weird! I just read Vida's book too. I picked it up because she and I went to college together, and there it was sitting on the center table at B & N.

The incredible compartmentalizing of past life vs. present life that we see in Northern Lights was like a kick in the gut to me as a daughter and as a mother. I liked how the novel ended. (Trying not to be a spoiler here, but beware...) I felt the sting when her Sami priest father "caught" her at the station and insisted that he knew she'd be leaving because after all, she's her mother's daughter. I also felt like she broke the cycle with her own interesting twist on the whole ending of the story, the choices she made there. Yes, there's a parallel there between mother and daughter, but only tangentially. (I'm trying to talk in code here so as not to post a spoiler...) The focus (the selfishness versus the giving and loving maternal caretaking) was so different in each case. The desire to provide stability and love to one's child made the wrap-up so redemptive, I thought.

I loved the book. Did you read her other fiction work? She's written one or two non-fiction books too.

Jennifer said...

Ooh, Trace, I love that quote!

I liked the book a lot, too, Christine--I'm going to have to take a gander at her other ones. I, weirdly, got caught up on the detail of the brother at the end, and worried about that. (Speaking in code...)

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