"Mankind cannot bear too much reality," T.S. Eliot said.
I know what he meant. I'm glued to the New York Times. Lapping up the story of Meinhardt Raabe, one of the last surviving Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz." In the film, he was the coroner, who said (of the Wicked Witch), "....she's not only merely dead, she's really, most sincerely dead." I should read the news, but I've heard way too much about the warlock in the White House.
Sometimes, listening to the newscast on NPR or reading the headlines in the Times, makes my head spin. I'm not criticizing news outlets. But, the mudslinging, natural disasters and wars which confront us from dawn to dusk can become too much for the imagination to assimilate. The emotions stirred up by these tragedies often are too intense to be bourne.
Yet, even when I'm overwhelmed by the harshness of reality, I, like many, am still curious about people. As much as I love a spell-binding novel, nothing is quite as satisfying as reading a riveting or moving memoir. No matter how much we like ourselves or our lives, most of us don't wish to be stuck in Planet Me. We want to be a part of other people's lives....to experience life on the warm side of the sun or the dark side of the moon in other solar systems.
All too often memoirs are narcissistic or shallow. (Let's hope that Britney Spears never takes up the literary life.) Or solipsistic and fictional (think James Frey.)
Yet, at its best, memoir writing is a work of art. Like all art, a good memoir makes beauty and order out of pain and chaos. A talented memorist removes the veil of secrecy which covers his or her life without sucking the reader into a Sargasso Sea of self-absorption.
I just read a memoir called, About Alice by Calvin Trillin (Random House). I gulped it down as if I hadn't had a drink of water after spending a month in the desert.
It's easy to forget that individual loss and grief occur in the midst of a national tragedy like the 9/11 attacks. Trillin, 71, who has written for The New Yorker since 1963, reminds us of this in About Alice, without once referring to terrorism or the World Trade Center. On September 11, Alice, his wife of 36 years died at 63. She'd kept lung cancer at bay (against all odds) for 25 years. But, the radiation used to treat it, fatally damaged her heart.
If you're afraid that this book will be another sodden, tear-soaked, why-did-this-happen-to-me volume, you needn't worry. (It's hard to imagine Trillin writing such a work unless he'd suddenly had a personality transplant.) The author in some 25 books (including "Travels with Alice" and "Family Man") has written with zest and wit about travel, food, Alice and his daughters. In About Alice, Trillin uses understatement, reportage (and even some humor) to make the memory of not only his late wife, but of his marriage to her and their family life come alive.
In his previous books, Trillin often used Alice as the "straight man" (what he referred to as the George Burns to his Gracie Allen). "....my wife Alice has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day," he wrote in Alice, Let's Eat. In About Alice, Trillin aims to portray his wife in 3D, as a full human being, rather than what he calls a "sit-com" character. It's almost impossible to remember or portray our loved ones (who died) precisely as they were in life. Memory plays tricks on even the most loving of us and love makes us (to at least some degree) idealize our dead ones.
Yet, Trillin largely succeeds in revealing who the unidealized Alice was. Alice was a writer and a teacher (she taught college students and prisoners at Sing Sing). Trillin loved his wife but knew that she could be bossy. If friends mentioned that they were renovating their houses, Alice would tell them what to do "room by room." "I felt obligated to warn our hosts that one of her characteristic gestures—the gesture she used when she was saying something like 'you have to open all this up'–was remarkably similar to the gesture you'd use to toss money into the wind," Trillin writes.
The reason why About Alice is so captivating is that Trillin presents Alice as a vibrant person involved in a multitude of interests (from modeling clothes in a New York Times magazine fashion spread to volunteering at a summer camp for sick children). We are given just enough information about Alice's illness to understand the cause of her death and the impact of her disease on her life. But, we aren't bombarded by medical details. Alice never seems more like a patient than a person.
Likewise for the grief that Trillin feels. We know that he loved Alice more than he could possibly say; yet we don't feel closed in by his mourning. Even as he grieves, he is aware of the world outside himself–from his grandchildren to the many condolence letters that he receives.
Though he did not feel up to writing humorously for a time after Alice's death, Trillin didn't lose his sense of humor. Once, at a conference, Alice introduced herself. She didn't say anything. Yet, the audience learned in a nano-second that she wasn't the "sensible librarian" type that many readers thought she was. Alice, Trillin says, stood and held up one of her shoes. "Shoes that looked like they cost about the amount of money required in some places to feed a family of four over for a year or two," he recalls.
Perhaps, this is what drew me to About Alice, a memoir with no power lunches, divorce, drugs, or murders. Trillin remarked on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS that he'd thought reading about his happy marriage would be like hearing Lawrence Welk play. Welk never rocked for me. But, if this is Trillin's music, I say play on.