Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: My Animal Life, by Maggie Gee

I picked up this memoir by British author Maggie Gee after reading a thoroughly engaging review of it in the UK Guardian back in March. For those of you who don't know, Maggie Gee is one of the writers who was included in the original Granta list of Best Young British Authors (along with Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan, and others) back in the early `80s. She has published about a dozen books and has been up for the Orange Prize and other awards. While on the surface it seems she has had a flawlessly successful career as a novelist, the reality of her situation is a much different story. The review above described My Animal Life as a tale of a woman lost in the literary world's mid-list, mid-career shuffle. Despite her early successes, few around London's literary elite had actually read Gee, and she at one point had a manuscript out-and-out rejected - not only by her publisher HarperCollins but by virtually every other mainstream publisher in Britain.

Gee's memoir does describe this ego-shattering experience in riveting detail, but it takes its sweet time getting there. Instead of limiting itself to this most compelling aspect of Gee's story, My Animal Life takes a more pedestrian and well-worn road - that of the "long view" memoir. Gee can't help but inundate the reader with ponderous background on her parents and grandparents (right down to the kinds of hats they wore), cliched observations about breast feeding her daughter, and other random domestic minutiae.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of the quotidian when it serves a higher function in a story. But one has to wonder what Gee was trying to accomplish in the first third of this book. If there was a greater structural function in describing the petty squabbles of her parents and the wardrobe norms of her grandparents, it was lost on me. Gee writes in a voice that captures the very worst stereotypes one might conjure about the Baby Boomer generation: self-absorbed, solipsistic, sanctimonious, and convinced that any typical life event, no matter how shopworn, is worth describing for the simple reason that it happened to them.

The biggest issue with My Animal Life, before it finally arrives at its gripping section on Gee’s struggles in the literary jungle, is that it lacks any cohesive organization. She hops around from topic to topic – childhood, parenthood, ancestry, her writing life – with no discernible pattern to the choices she’s made as the narrator. Indeed, I often felt there was a lack of continuity from one paragraph to the next. Even at the level of the sentence, Gee can’t seem to settle into a style. Her sentences are at one point fluid and complete, then veer suddenly into fragmentation and ellipsis.

Still, there is a lot to admire about this memoir. Gee writes a harrowing scene where she is almost raped while on family vacation in France by an army conscript home on leave. And her description of her mother’s death is as heartbreaking as it is memorable. Gee can write a compelling scene when she has to; she just can’t seem to tell the difference between what constitutes a gripping anecdote and what doesn’t. Again, she’s clearly a product of her generation.

I think there’s a valuable lesson that any would-be writer can take away from My Animal Life, but it isn’t the one promised in that UK Guardian review. The lesson here is that a memoir need not be – in fact, should not be – a life told in total. Rather, the best of this kind of literary personal nonfiction is the kind that identifies the truly interesting, the truly fascinating aspects of the author’s life, and focuses on those and those alone. Leave out your long rambles about grandparents and the kinds of hats they wore. If you're Maggie Gee, your story is told better by leaving them out.

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