Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week bringing you down — and then up.
“The Rules of Inheritance” is a memoir about a bummer. Two bummers, really. When Claire Bidwell Smith, an only child, was 14, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. When she was 18, her mother died. When she was 25, her father died.
Why, you may wonder, am I writing about this book?
Initially, my reason was personal.
When my wife was 11, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. When she was 13, her mother died. When she was 17, her father died.
Claire Bidwell Smith is now a grief counselor and hospice worker — she’s not only come to terms with her losses, she’s learned how to use them to help others. My wife has taken paths to healing that do not include the writing of a memoir. And in this, my third marriage, I am not so stupid that I believe asking my wife direct questions about the biggest tragedies in her life is endearing or useful. But here was a book. And I thought… okay, just this once….
“The Rules of Inheritance” is sensationally good, and if you have lost someone you love or are in the process of losing someone, I’d put this book on top of the pile. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
But that’s not the reason I want to write about it. As I was reading Smith’s memoir, I happened upon a blog by Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion. She writes:
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books that play it safe. Conventional narratives, characters whose edges are smoothed out to a palatable degree. Can I just say it? These books bore me. I’m bored. It’s like eating muesli when I want a charred, juicy steak. I want to read about messiness. I don’t need the pieces to fit together in fiction — I mean, when do the pieces ever fit together in life? I want to encounter characters who feel, who do the unexpected. Who think human thoughts — no matter how dark and flawed and uncomfortable. I want to be reminded of my own inner landscape, my own complex humanity.
I also seem to be getting a lot of those books. Description? For pages. Plots? So exquisitely graphed that they’re airless. And long? My pet peeve. So very, very long.
For these “term-paper” writers — because they write as if a kindly teacher is going to give them an “A” and send a nice note home — and their suicidal publishers, it might as well be 1910. Did the Internet happen? Did reading habits and attention spans change? “Yes, of course.” And the implications of that? “We’ll adjust our marketing.”
The most important question — might readers be more inclined to read shorter, more crisply edited books? — goes unanswered, largely because it seems not to be asked. And that is one of the reasons I have such high hopes for the novel I’m writing. “The Great Gatsby” is a thin book: 47,094 words. Mine won’t top 47,000. And it’s written in the style I’ve developed in 15 years of writing on the Internet: short sentences, short paragraphs, more dialogue than description. “Prose like a windowpane,” Orwell said. Well, I’m trying.
And so is Claire Bidwell Smith. Her book is a chronicle of a decade-long nervous breakdown. In her case, that means a doomed relationship with an obsessive lover, aimless travel, a joke of an assistant’s job for the West Coast editor of a magazine that sounds suspiciously like Vanity Fair and a bout of nursing her father. And it means the thoughts she has along the way.
“Champagne for my sham friends, real pain for my real friends,” Noel Coward said. Smith writes for herself — she hardly dares to imagine that she has friends — in an effort to become a friend to herself. So her thoughts are brutal.
Claire, your mother is dying. Nothing. I feel nothing.
My mother is dead. She has been dead for three days. My mother has been dead for three days. I say it out loud over and over…
My mother is gone. My father is 78 years old. This is it. I am on my own.
I would do anything to have my mother back.
Like that, for 260 pages. A collection of anecdotes, with glimmers of possibility along the way. And a final chapter that is everything you hope it will be — for her, for you, for us all.
Could Smith have filled 400 pages? Why not? All the others do. But Smith matched method to story. She gave us a book that’s reads right for right now. And sounds as if it will be true forever.
A sample. She’s 18. It’s her last night in Spain. She meets a boy, a smart, sweet boy. And goes home with him:
Moments can be so simple sometimes. In this one I realize that I have convinced myself that nothing could ever hurt as much as my mother’s death but in fact, the opposite is true.
Tears well up in my eyes. It occurs to me that I have been pretending, that I thought I deserved this. For the first time, I feel the knife slide in just a little.
I turn my head to one side to hide my tears and I feel Alvaro’s heavy silence.
I’ve never done this, he whispers.
I turn back to him, searching his face.
A few days ago his girlfriend of two years – his first love – left him. His voice is a whisper as he tells me this. She already has a new boyfriend.
I knew, Alvaro says, the moment my fingers closed around your camera, that I would sleep with you.
My mother is dead, I say in response. She died a couple of months ago.
I knew I would sleep with you too, I say.
We spend the rest of the night talking, face to face, our legs crossed Indian-style on the bed, and then perched on stools at the kitchen counter drinking cold juice, and later back in his car, the stars are high and clear above us.
It doesn’t occur to me until later how much this night is like the one I spent with Michel, but when it does, I will again marvel at the power people have to unlock each other.
I call that an “A.” And perhaps this note to the author will suffice.