Every Thing Rustles, Jane Silcott. Anvil, 2013.
Drunk Mom, Jowita Bydlowska. Doubleday Canada, 2013.
by Sina Queyras
“But that Montreal scene, I say, cringing.” –Sarah Hampson
I had always planned to read Drunk Mom, the memoir by Jowita Bydlowska. As a writer and a relatively new mother, it intrigued. Still, I wasn’t planning on reading it so soon–or so fast–like I said, new mom. Recent discussions about women and reviewing, or rather, how reviewers discuss their work, and then a particularly high octane interview between Sarah Hampson and the author of the memoir, made me want to read it sooner than later if only so I could post an informed response.
Drunk Mom, as the title suggests, is a memoir about a “drunk” and a “mom.” From the tone of the Hampson interview it’s clear that what polite society thinks of as a “drunk mom” is not a drunk who drinks to the point of passing out, but rather a mom who frets over a glass of wine now and then while rearranging the sock drawer and raising an appropriately swaddled baby. A sort of “drunk-light.”
Bydlowska is a flat out drunk. A soggy, alcohol-sweating, black-out drunk who wakes up in strange locations with bruises and no underwear. A drunk who doesn’t stop breastfeeding even though she knows and attempts to calculate and to manage the potential damage to her child. A drunk who can’t stop even when she realizes she might be risking it all. At least not until she begins to understand what “losing it all” actually means. In other words, a real drunk. A real, addicted, human.
I won’t say it was a harrowing read, but I will say, it was sometimes as difficult to read as it was compelling.
While reading Drunk Mom, I also started reading Jane Silcott’s Every Thing Rustles. These two books couldn’t be farther apart in content, tone, and intention. Silcott’s memoir is grounded in a fairly conventional, literaryish family world, with earnestly good intentions on every page. We notice the drunk on the street, a ranting renter on the bus, we watch the author struggle to be a good mother, and we watch her struggle with what she thinks is being a good mother while she’s actually a very good mother.
Contrary to Bydlowska’s world, everything about Silcott’s book shines with social goodness–not that I don’t empathize, and not that I didn’t enjoy her struggles–I do. I completely empathized and related. But all that earnestness got a little oppressive, one incident after the other of having a life lesson in which the narrator is appropriately humbled and lesson learned.
This is the opposite of Drunk Mom where the struggle is to be a good, or functioning, drunk. Yes the author is also struggling to be a mother–I won’t say a good mother–I think that’s enough of a struggle for most women (those who will admit it), let alone an alcoholic mother. But Bydlowska doesn’t use the empathy card. She doesn’t ever try to make her reader feel sorry for her; in fact, it’s quite the opposite: she is so honest it’s sometimes difficult to have empathy for her. She describes herself with little compassion, opting for rugged realism. I can see her clearly, expressing the tainted milk into toilets and sinks, as she describes, waiting the requisite hours to feed her baby. But Bydlowska’s worst offense appears to be that she doesn’t learn from her mistakes, which is deadly for a female narrator.
Well, that and an inappropriate lack of wallowing.
Or, appropriate lack of wallowing if you see my point.
Silcott is a self-effacing, mature woman, her children are older, she is well-established in her life, though of course, still struggling. Her partner shares many of the narratives in this memoir, but perhaps not with the harsh glare we experience in Bydlowska’s narrative. He’s a firm, present companion to a very sturdy family narrative. I enjoyed the world that Silcott creates, what she notices, how she moves through spaces. I didn’t always want her conclusions though. I’m sure most will find them reassuring, but to this reader, they had the opposite effect.
If, as Hampson seems to complain of in her interview with Jowita Bydlowska, she lacks in “Aha” moments, Silcott verges on an overabundance of such “Aha” moments.
Bydlowska is a young woman. Just starting her writing career. An outsider trying to find her place in the city, while arguably being part of Toronto’s literary elite by association. Her partner, whom she refers to as “her boyfriend,” is in a way, a colleague of Hampson’s at the Globe and Mail, and a successful Canadian novelist. It’s partly this that Hampson braces at in her interview. It’s not about “her,” it’s about her “partner” and their son. How dare a woman spill family secrets?
Though, to be fair, I did wonder where Bydlowska’s partner was throughout most of this story. They are a young couple–the well-heeled Toronto literati those of us outside of Toronto love to envy. But as a new father, her boyfriend seems glaringly absent, clued out even, and it isn’t until he begins to really see what’s going on, and pressures the author to confront her disease, that things begin to change for the better.
The literary world as presented in Bydlowska’s memoir seems more concerned with parties, openings and sexual maneuverings than it does with attempts to block out time to write–there is some discussion of the work, but the content of the writing, the discourse of the writing world, never comes up. To be fair though, it isn’t the point here. This is about an author coming to her narrative, but it is the state of her life that is noteworthy. Noteworthy too is the honest and brutal way in which Bydlowska presents herself and her thinking: she never looks away, never pulls back, and the text always feels honest. I respect this, immensely.
I respect Silcott’s prose as well. It is clamped onto other writers and thinkers at every turn, and though it also feels honest, it also feels coiffed–even the flaws have been well-considered.
Bydlowska doesn’t offer a happy moment at the end of her narrative, though since the author is sober and the book exists we know that the sobriety has lasted long enough for us to feel okay about her future. This lack of an appropriate conclusion is partly what seems to have pissed off Hampson and caused her to scold Bydlowska. This should be very familiar to women writers everywhere. And the reason Virginia Woolf wrote about killing the angel in the house. This should be familiar to those of us who feel trapped by feminine virtues. I would say though, that what we need to kill is the narrative structures and expectations that contain women a/ in the house b/ with tongues latched half shut and c/ swirling around in self-doubt. I am wary of the ways in which women have to perform certain kinds of conciliatory or redemptive endings. At the end, the author of Drunk Mom is aware she’s a drunk. She’s no longer delusional about managing her addiction–a huge step. I’m not sure what more we can ask for.
Silcott, on the other hand, is just too interested in being that good woman, too concerned with directing us to the lesson, to her humanity, again and again. The author is, as we see in the final chapter entitled “Everything Rustles,” literally trapped in life’s headlights. How will she cope? What tools will she find to aid her? How will she think her way out or through? Who is in the woods? What is fear? I totally respect this author’s willingness to present herself in the present moment again and again, using what she has at hand to make her way through. Sometimes a reader wants fear to be an idea, not a reality, an idea that we can tamp back into place. “A thread of fear unfurls inside of me and makes my breath go shallow, my heart race,” (182) Silcott writes, wrestling with her resistance to the unknown but also acknowledging that she “likes scaring herself.”
Ultimately this is a book that is about how to live in the present moment, without fear. The narrative ends this way:
I walk a path through the woods out to the Fraser River. The land on the far shore is open, the view filled with light and space. I’m happy out there. Maybe beauty is another kind of awakening. In time, my body and mind swing into rhythm, my torso lengthens, and I feel the health and strength of my body, everything in concert, everything flowing in a rhythm bigger than I am, as if I’ve clicked into some sort of current that’s always out there, and that as long as I’m walking inside of it, I am invincible (190).
Would it be a stretch to say Bydlowska’s is also about a struggle to live in the present moment? Without a drink yes, but also, just living.
I think about these two in relation to each other because the issues that come up get at something about the way in which we read and review women’s books. In an interview with The Spectator, Sheila Heti, an author who has never done the predictable, describes how she feels after publishing How Should a Person Be, a novel that has all the hallmarks of a memoir, while confounding them:
With my other books I sort of feel that they’re clean and good and so on, and after I published them the response didn’t make me feel any less clean or good; this book is so dirty. The response to it, and allowing myself to do all these interviews or whatever; everything’s become messy and dirty in my life and in my sense of myself. The book’s effect on my life has been kind of radical in a way that feels counter to my nature and everything.
I would have been disappointed had Bydlowska cleaned up the narrative. Heti too.
“I feel both protective of her and annoyed by her – which is not what an interviewer is supposed to feel,” Hampson admits in her interview with Bydlowska. Here’s the part from the Sarah Hampson “interview” that particularly bothered me:
I nod at her, watching her, her expression as she grimaces with nervousness, her delicate, thin hands with their deep-rose nails, fidgeting with her long necklaces. She wears a cream, conservative blouse; her long, dark hair in a top knot, scraped back off her pretty, angular face. Her top half makes her seem like a librarian; her bottom half, a sexy 35-year-old woman in a leather skirt, nude fishnet stockings, black heels. It’s as if she is two parts – timid yet bold; studious but outré, too, proud of her candour, of her attraction to darkness. And I can tell that her defiance carries with it an uncharitable judgment of those she might consider too bourgeois to understand the complex reality of her particular human condition.
The interview was more a scolding for behaving outside not only the accepted norms of genre, but of gender, and most emphatically, of motherhood. As Julie Rak points out:
It is in the nature of memoir in our time to be confessional, particularly when it is written by people who are not public figures. In the United Kingdom, there is a whole genre dedicated to this kind of writing, called “Misery Memoirs.” If the authors are not celebrities or artists or politicians or saints, what we want to see is what Frank McCourt gave us in Angela’s Ashes, an elegant confession of someone’s suffering and inner life. This is what makes people read about the lives of others. We see what they see. Perhaps we even feel what they feel. But when someone like Bydlowska steps over an ethical line and gives us too much suffering or too much confession without enough redemption to make readers feel alright again, then the desire to see someone confess becomes revulsion.
So, as a reviewer, with all this personal history on the table, is fair to assess the personal appearance of the authors? Of their behaviour? Of their lives? Is it fair to air our “revulsion,” as Hampson did? I feel a bit conflicted about this issue. My own impulse was to leap to the defense of the author, which upon reflection, seems as inappropriate as Hampson’s move. Are we reviewing/assessing the book or the author? This is a significant question for women. Significant in the bid to be reviewed equally in “serious” literary journals (LRB, NYRB). In Hampson’s case, in an interview, the person behind the art is fair game, but it seems to me that this kind of overly bodily fixated viciousness is something reserved for female authors, and a way, in Joanna Russ’s terms, to discourage female authors.
Much has been made recently, on this blog and elsewhere, about the line between the author and the text when we discuss work, particularly in regards to work by women. A few weeks ago, I posted “Unequal To Me,” a poem by Zoe Whittall that features descriptions of the author from reviews, with the gender reversed, but as we see here, it’s not only men who see women’s writing this way.
And yet, there is a way in which I want to see women as capable of taking this kind of public criticism and not flinch. Who cares what a reviewer thinks of a book? Are there any real implications to a bad review? Are these any worse than the feeling one gets after reading a total gush? I would say the only thing worse than people talking about you is people talking ridiculously about you…
“I think a book in ‘good taste’ isn’t much of a book at all,” Sheila Heti Tweeted recently. It pains me some to agree because I don’t want only the blistering narratives, as much as we need those. I can say that I don’t know if I would have enjoyed Silcott’s memoir as much as I did without Bydlowska’s raw, edgy prose. Silcott was not only a useful counter-balance to Drunk Mom; Bydlowska was an essential balance to Silcott’s shimmering world. I recommend them both.
As for the bitchy review? As Erin Moure says, count the column inches and leave it at that. Or, as someone told me after an early and biting review, wear it like a badge. And I did. A big, menacing badge of honor that now acts like a shield.
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