Tuesday, October 27, 2009
The people who somehow come to speak for their generation don't seem to relish it much, but at any given moment there's no shortage of people who would really, really like the job. There's been a surfeit of memoirs written over the course of the years since the Baby Boom generation started writing, and even the fiction produced by people more or less my age often seems excessively self-referential. Lots of people want to be the spokesperson for my age cohort. It's funny how many of them don't get it at all. Joyce Maynard is one of them.
I read "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back At Life" when it appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1972. I was 15, as callow a teenage existentialist as ever read Camus, and the essay made my skin crawl. Years later, when she published her book about her time with J.D. Salinger I was struck by the creepiness of the relationship, but even more so by the fact that Maynard was exploiting it. Then she auctioned the letters Salinger had written to her (and wrote an essay justifying it). Making a fetish of J.D. Salinger is something adolescents (and adolescent intellects) have been doing since, I guess, about 1945, but with the exception of the few nuts who make pilgrimages to Cornish one of the things that most Salinger acolytes seem to respect is his devotion to privacy. Maynard set herself in opposition to this, and by so doing really kind of established herself as the anti-Salinger. Like all narcissists Maynard has only one subject, and like most she is less interesting than she imagines. What sets her apart is how dogged she is in exploiting others to write about herself. (It is also a bit odd to note how the New York Times has been her enabler over the years.) I missed her article about cracking into her daughter's email account last summer, but now her daughter, Audrey Bethel, has written about the experience of being written about by Joyce Maynard. Ms. Bethel is restrained, ("It can be frustrating for me to let my mother own her stories—and by proxy, the stories of the people close to her") but it is pretty clear that the experience of being in emotional proximity to Joyce Maynard means being in a state of perpetual tug-of-war between one's own autonomy and a black hole of an ego that sucks in everything around it. I suppose that if the ultimate product were better there might be some justification for it-- as William Faulkner remarked, "'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." It is harder to justify when the result is an endpaper for the Sunday rotogravure.
I mention it because it relates to a struggle I have been having. As a writer I am not even in Joyce Maynard's class I'm afraid, but I do feel the impulse to document the experience of EGA's cancer diagnosis and treatment. More accurately, I feel as though I should write about my experience of it: what it felt like to hear her tell me on the phone, "Dad, this is serious. They think I have breast cancer." I should write about what happened next, and what happened after that. It would be hard to do, I think, and the idea would be to describe the past few months in an emotionally honest way. That would be interesting for me to do, because one of the ways that the experience was tolerable was that I managed to contain the emotional dimension of it. Indeed, that was how I responded from the moment the phone call was over. We were visiting CLA in Northhampton. It was Good Friday. We were in Fitzwillies. We finished our lunch, then went to the running store to buy CLA some sports gel for her Rugby games the next day. She went to practice, and we went to the Smith library to book travel. I could tell you all about the quality of light that day, and the quiet, purposeful terse conversation that A and I allowed ourselves. About the flight from Buffalo to Bloomington, and the miserable dive we stayed in there, and the doctors. I could write about how the the difference between the local cancer treatment facilities in Bloomington is different from a major regional cancer center like Roswell Park, and about what it has been like to follow the debate about health care reform over the same period and through the scrim of what we were living.
There is a whole genre of cancer memoir, but my story would be different because it wasn't my disease. Of course other people have done that, too, but at least John Gunther was eulogizing his son in his memoir. It seems to me that if I wrote about what this has been like I would be doing exactly what Audrey Bethel says her mother does, and I am not interested in doing that. Exhuming my emotional state would be making her story-- a good story-- a story about me, and that feels inappropriate. So, for now, the good news remains that EGA is doing well. She writes about her experience ably, and the chances are that if you read this you already know about that. It turns out that breast cancer, as horrible as it is, is pretty treatable, although the treatment is pretty horrible too. In the back of my mind the idea that there is more to say about all this lingers, an itch that I am trying not to scratch. Right at this moment that seems like the most emotionally honest response.