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Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

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Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, emotion, memoir, narrative, REVIEW, scene, structure, style

Around the web

Richard Russo on his new memoir, Elsewhere.

For some reason, I put in a standing order a long time ago for Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir, and now here it sits on my coffee table, a book, it turns out, about his close but conflicted relationship with his mother. Maybe I was eager because I enjoyed Empire Falls, or maybe I was curious at the time about what an acclaimed novelist would do in his first work of nonfiction.

Anyway, it was ages ago that I committed to this book, and I’ve read so many memoirs since, increasingly ones checked out from the library. I’ve realized they’re like novels—you can’t keep up, can’t read them all; I only bought Cheryl Strayed’s Wild after reading a library copy—but here on my table, for some reason, is this one, a handsome book.

In conjunction’s with his memoir’s release Russo has given an interview to The New York Times in which he says several interesting things, including this on the role in memoir of selection and dramatization in scene:

I think the best memoirs read like novels, which means, among other things, that the writer must decide what fits the narrative arc and what doesn’t. The fact that something actually happened doesn’t mean it should be included. A memoirist isn’t free to invent, but the shape of the story is up to him. He decides—as in a novel—how and where the story begins (near the end, in this case). He also chooses, just as a novelist does, when to summarize and when time should slow down for a dramatic scene.


Memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert on being a lifelong writer

My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. —Elizabeth Gilbert, in her Rumpus interview

Speaking of conflicted feelings, I had them about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—like a subset of other readers, for me its veiled calculation curdled some of the book’s pleasures—but admired her writing ability. I found inspiring her recent wide-ranging interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus.

She discusses her new historical hovel, her writerly girlhood, and her years, while learning to write fiction, of bartending and waitressing and her wasting time in “fucked-up emotional psychosexual dramas,” so that it’d take her almost a year to write one short story. A big breakthrough came with her GQ article, about a bar she worked at and where she’d set a short story, which led to the movie Coyote Ugly.

Gilbert (or Cousin Liz, as I call her—no relation) is really good on keeping going as a writer, and she answers her critics of Eat, Pray, Love and those of its follow-up, Committed. An excerpt:

It does get to me sometimes. Of course it does. Because writing is everything to me. Publishing wasn’t everything. Writing was everything. And I accidentally made this bestseller. It wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, it felt like a big risk for what I had of a career. Because prior to that point, if I was known at all, I was known as the tough-writing woman who was the only girl in the room. I quit my really good job at GQ to go traveling that year, and they couldn’t promise me that I could have that job back. I’d earned a certain amount of credibility that I knew I was endangering by speaking with such emotional candor. All the guys that I hung out with at GQ I was thinking about as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love. . . . It was a really emotionally honest attempt, and it was a really literarily honest attempt, too, as a book, and for every person who’s snarky about it, there are several thousand whose lives were altered by it, in ways that were very real, and when I meet those women and they tell me their stories and they tell me what that book did for them, or did to them, those stories are profoundly real, and they’re far more real than a gripe-y blogger. Of course the gripe-y blogger has a real life, as well. But I’ve met those women and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve seen this great opening this book gave them to start to consider questions in their own lives about what they deserve, and what they want, and what they want to seek. That’s a solace. . . .

It’s almost like Committed was the sacrificial book. I’m very fond of it and it’s very dear to me for that reason, because it went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love build up, and they needed to get it out on their blogs—it just took all of those slings and arrows. But then it was distracting everybody, and I got to go off and write a novel about 19th century botanical exploration! And so Committedpermitted me to write this book. I feel like that’s why you have to keep working, because you never know what your one project will open up for you, for your next one. You owe it to the project that wants to be born next to get this one finished, so that you can do the next one. You just have to keep the assembly line going. I know I make it sound like it’s always been a ball, but it hasn’t always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s been painful. But it’s mostly been a pleasure.

 

The definitive account of the fall of Jonah Lehrer

. . . Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out.—Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Kachka’s rather amazing New York article,Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer” is about how Lehrer, whose unraveling began when some obsessives noticed he’d made up some quotes by Bob Dylan for his book on creativity, Imagine, represents the end stage of a new evolutionary beast:

In the world of magazines, of course, none of us is immune to slickness or oversimplification—New York included. But two things make Lehrer’s glibness especially problematic, and especially representative. First, conferences and corporate speaking gigs have helped replace the ­journalist-as-translator with the journalist-as-sage; in a magazine profile, the scientist stands out, but in a TED talk, the speaker does. And second, the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will.

The contrast between Elizabeth Gilbert’s slogging apprenticeship as a writer and Lehrer’s as a science journalist is striking. He’d studied to be a scientist, apparently, or at least majored in neuroscience at Columbia, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship and wrote a book. At some point, he saw he could translate science to a big audience. Just as Malcolm Gladwell raids social science, he could plunder the harder stuff.

But as Kachka points out, no one, not even a genius, let alone the merely brilliant, could do everything Lehrer was trying to do as a leading practitioner of  “this new guard of nonspecialist Insight peddlers.”

 

The almost-definitive account of David Foster Wallace & his demons

David Foster Wallace’s suicide was the greatest literary tragedy since John Berryman flung himself from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972. The pain of mental illness and drug addiction constituted a frightful part of who he was. Out of that pain and his efforts to purify and to heal himself he wrote one of the most remarkable novels of our time. To say it reaches the heights of Joyce or Dostoevsky is going too far, but it will stand, and it has something crucial to teach generations of readers about how to live, even with terrible pain they might think they cannot endure.—Algis Valiunas, “King of Pain”

I say almost because it will never end. Obviously.

But Algis Valiunas’s “King of Pain,” for the website of the Claremont Institute, while another baby-whale retrospective on the late writer, is impressive and interesting; it addresses what kind of person he was, his long but productive apprenticeship, his moral vision, his mature writing and especially Infinite Jest, and the depression that killed him.

For anyone with any interest in Wallace as a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist, it’s well worth reading.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, scene

Dubus & Russo wonder: Why Memoir?

Just two (famous) novelists enjoyin’ their coffee & nonfiction

Andre Dubus III and Richard Russo discuss their memoirs at The Daily Beast:

“How strange to write a memoir to find out what happens.”—Richard Russo, author of the forthcoming Elsewhere: A Memoir

 “I felt I was stepping into deep mysteries when supposedly I knew the story but didn’t.”—Andre Dubus III, author of Townie: A Memoir

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, memoir, NOTED