by Lee | 1/9/2014
" Read this in various locations (parks, rooms, trains) but finished the last few pages in the tiny park at First Ave and Houston about a block from where the author bounds up the subway steps toward the end. I expected to look up and see a 3D projection of Marco turn the corner and bound toward the Lower East Side, conspicuously alleviated, his self-portrayed nervous, self-defeating, self-consciously "intellectual" intelligence at long last chanelled toward specific purposes: this recently published, smart, moving "anti-memoir" about more than his father's HIV contraction and death by AIDS, and his work as co-editor of n+1. Anti-memoir, essay, or whatever it's called, it's a book very much about the interdependent duo of life and text. As such, it's also very much a book about writing a book, and therefore eligible for shelving among other books I've loved like Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer, Concrete by Thomas Bernhard, Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, and Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, among others I can't remember now but will add once I do. I love books about trying (and predominately failing, of course) to write books -- it's probably my favorite literary subgenre, in part because the existence of the book itself suggests a successful struggle. This is an excellent example of the genre, although it's not quite as explicit as those mentioned above. The author traces intricate patterns on a sophisticated, elaborate, endangered foundation of artistic, tempermental, and intellectual inheritance. Hand-wringing involves living up to the expectations of privilege and one's talent and education, and at most matching (if not necessarily surpassing) one's parents' success. Like all worthwhile writing, essay or otherwise, this is primarily a Truth Hunt, with the author presented as fragile literary investigator with a nose for the facts, even/especially if they're abstract realizations achieved via strict scrutiny of serious Russian/European novels his father suggested he read. The investigation takes the author to Paris to study with Derrida (as he learns more about his father's history/orientation, the son's origin/center shifts); to Yale's PhD lit program to assay his father's favorite texts (including "Fathers and Sons") for traces of truth about father and son and to hash out anti-narrative ideas of identity with brilliant/sloshed fellow grad students; and to his ever-changing place of origin, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It's an investigation that pays off for the author in that this is clearly a book that had to be written, and it's something that had to be written in proper and attentively phrased prose worthy of the author's cultural/famililal legacy and intense literary interest. But it also pays off for readers because of the clarity and intelligence of the prose, the general spirit of erudition lofted by engines of emotion (and vice versa), but also it succeeds as a simple high-lit whodunit (the conclusion of the case I won't reveal). All in all, a brave, intelligent, moving book for telling the story of discerning the truth about the father's tragic story while devising out of aesthetic and emotional necessity the book in the readers' hands. After alleviating his family burden by abstractly avenging his father's death, the son seems ready to trace new patterns across the interdependent pages of life and text. Alt title: "Portrait of the Public Intellectual as a Young Man." "