An Abbreviated Life is the perfect final selection for the Horrid Mothers Book Club. Begin with the first generation of recent "momoirs" that resemble traditional realistic novels Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, both published in 2005. Then on to the second generation, such as Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? both postmodern, from their interrogative titles through their continual references to themselves as texts. Except for Winterson's mother, the antagonists of these earlier books are impoverished would-be artists who take out their frustrations and anger on their daughters. Ariel Leve's mother is even more horrid because she's a successful and well-off literary writer who still abuses her daughter. Fortunately for readers and for Leve the author, though not for Ariel the child, her mother's outrageous behavior and aesthetic passions seem to have pressed Leve to create an original form, one that combines extremes of the first generation's factuality and the second generation's artificiality.
Though unconventionally achronological in structure, An Abbreviated Life is more "realistic" than any of the earlier works because two of its characters are public figures about whom information can be ascertained from sources other than the author. In a prefatory note, Leve states, "Some names and details have been changed in order to protect the privacy and/or anonymity of various individuals involved," but she doesn't try very hard to disguise identities. Although she calls her mother Suzanne, it's easy to find that "Suzanne" is Sandra Hochman, the author of many books of poetry and novels who taught at the City College of New York and Fordham University. She also directed a feminist movie, Year of the Woman, that has received renewed attention in recent years. A free-spirited and charming heiress in the New York of the '60s and '70s, Hochman was a friend of Anaïs Nin, had affairs with literary lions including Saul Bellow and (apparently) Robert Lowell, was filmed by Andy Warhol, dragooned Norman Mailer into being Ariel's godfather, and gave parties attended by other celebrities from the worlds of art and music. Her companion for about fifteen years was Donald Townsend, a transplanted North Dakotan who founded a chain of then innovative restaurants called Tad's Steaks. Although Leve's preface claims scrupulosity, much of the identifying information above is front-loaded as the hook for an apparent "tell-all" exposé of the Mommie Dearest variety. But Leve's "all" is mostly about herself and her feelings toward the public figures.
Leve is forty-six when writing An Abbreviated Life, which comprises fifty-one abbreviated chapters that hop, skip, and jump among the decades of her life. Associations, contrasts, and recurring themes dictate this textual jittering, but, as with a modernist or postmodernist novel, readers can reconstruct a chronology that leads to questions about psychological causality. "Suzanne" married Harvey Leve (his real name used in the book) in 1966. Ariel was born in 1968. In 1972, Harvey could not bear living with Suzanne and moved to Thailand, where Ariel as a young girl visited him in the summers. The rest of the year she was left in New York to be by turns smothered and neglected just about daily by Suzanne, who employed a series of housekeepers to look after Ariel when Suzanne was busy: writing, in bed talking on the phone, or throwing parties, to which she was frequently a late arrival.
The demon is in the details. One of the most grotesque is Suzanne's game of "Being Born," in which Suzanne lies naked in bed while Ariel has to pretend she is emerging from her mother's vulva. Suzanne embarrasses Ariel by wearing her bathrobe on the street, talks about the size of her current boyfriend's penis with the young child, rarely shows up on time for a meal or Ariel's performances, and breaks every promise Ariel can remember her making. In the summer of 1977, Ariel writes her mother from Thailand with plans to live with her father. Two days after Suzanne receives the letter, she, accompanied by her tennis pro, storms into Ariel's room in Bangkok to take her back.
Leve repeatedly states that Suzanne subjected her to physical and emotional abuse while constantly reminding her daughter how much her mother loved her. This kind of contradiction what Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing called "the double bind" - - can drive kids crazy. Ariel fortunately had Josie, one sane long- term housekeeper; Rita, a former lover of her father's who visited Ariel for several years; the commonsensical Donald (after he dried out); and, though only at a distance, her father to provide some order in her childhood. But as an adult Leve says she still fears her mother, lacks confidence, and feels in a holding pattern.
Leve believes she has been "brain-damaged." A neurologist refines this to "brain-altered" by childhood stress, and the therapist whom Leve has been talking with for seventeen years decides to apply EMDR, a method of reprogramming the brain through eye exercises. Many months of this therapy, which is primarily used for treating PTSD, seem to help Leve, because in her book's present she visits her retired father, now residing in Bali, and begins living there with an Italian sailing instructor who is the single father of seven-year-old twin girls. Because the sweet- tempered Mario is militantly non-verbal, Leve learns to moderate some of her constant self-analysis and nurtures the motherless girls. After almost a year in Bali, she manages to write Suzanne a long letter that explains her absence and leads to writing An Abbreviated Life. With this information, I have not spoiled Leve's plot, because most of the facts can be gleaned from her first fifty pages.
When Ariel was a child, she wrote a story about a girl who ran away. Her mother ordered her to change "girl" to "dog" and told her to write poems. In Leve's last chapter, she says, "I'm not changing my story! I'm not!" I hope every word of Leve's recovery story is factual, but some of it, as well as her presentation of her father, can seem too good to be true. Forget that Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love was also healed in Bali by a sweet- tempered man not a native speaker of English. Leve's innocent Bali is constructed of a few exotic clichés. Her father has consistently been described as almost too sweet to live, certainly to live with Suzanne. But why did Harvey, a Harvard Law graduate, insist on spending almost his whole adult life in Asia if he loved Ariel, as he says, more than anything? And is "devouring" Suzanne supporting Leve in Bali, as mother helped daughter live in London when Leve was a journalist there? The book also may leave others wondering what Ariel was like as a teenager and why she has been unable to write the liberating letter to her mother until she is forty- six.
Suzanne tells Ariel not to be a victim, but maybe she is as incapacitated as an adult as she asks us to believe. Still, questions niggle. How has Leve functioned for a decade as a journalist interviewing high-profile persons in the arts? That is not discussed. The memoir leaves large gaps to unpredictably but obsessively toggle back and forth between the horrors of Ariel's childhood in New York and the wonders of her year in Bali. I initially thought the temporal and spatial jumps, as well as the short, sometimes unrelated paragraphs and the pregnant sentence fragments, were meant to imitate the chaos that Ariel experienced as a child. But by the end of An Abbreviated Life, I thought it might be a highly sophisticated and intentionally unreliable narration like, say, Ford Madox Ford's classic enigma The Good Soldier. Instead of being disordered, the memoir's elements could have been carefully selected and cleverly arranged by Leve the author to demonstrate Ariel the narrator's evasion of tough questions about biographical causality and to illustrate what a desperate, possibly illusory recovery might look like. Winterson and Bechdel explicitly question their authorship within their scattered memoirs. Leve's narrative fragmentation leaves the questions to her readers.
Perhaps Leve's title points to the book's lacunae, which make An Abbreviated Life problematic and, to this literary critic, more interesting than any of the other memoirs. Protesting blowsy Edwardian sentimentality, Ezra Pound insisted, "Poetry should be at least as well written as prose." I think memoirs should be as well written as novels. Unless a memoir's "facts" can be verified because the subjects' lives are known to the public, I treat those "facts" as I would information about invented characters. The figures in memoirs must be plausible, and if they're not within the realm of probability the memoirist has the responsibility to indicate why. Winterson is particularly good at this when she depicts the Christian fanaticism of her mother. Leve gives dozens of pages to her early abandonment by her monstrous mother but only several paragraphs to Suzanne's abandonment as a child, which Leve admits affected her mothering. Only occasionally (and grudgingly) does Suzanne let's face it: Sandra Hochman get credit for what she achieved and what she gave her daughter despite being an atrocious parent; as it is, the story shares in Milton's famous problem with Satan in Paradise Lost, with a villain more interesting than anyone else in the book. Leve complains at great length that her life has been "abbreviated" by her mother, but Leve does the same thing in short space to her mother's life. If An Abbreviated Life were a novel, I'd call its narrative underdeveloped, overdetermined, and mistitled.
I emphasize the ambivalences and ambiguities of An Abbreviated Life for two reasons. First, because they can lead readers to think about how we read memoirs what credulity we're willing to grant memoirists who say their extravagant accounts are true, what expectations we should have of first-person narrations in both fiction and nonfiction, what responsibility the memoirist has to be both factual and artful. A writer such as James Frey invents events to make his work more dramatic. That's just fakery, what the religious teachers of my youth called a sin of commission. More challenging is the memoir that appears to leave out crucial events, the possible sin of omission that scrupulous readers must judge. Since most of us are less likely to be extravagant liars than efficient withholders, An Abbreviated Life seems both true and false.
My second reason is this: I differ with the blurbs and advance reviews of An Abbreviated Life that praise it as another heartwarming story of how a damaged child triumphed over her past and found a happy ending. A heartwarmer may have been exactly what Leve intended but didn't have the skill to pull off without leaving lacunae that undermine her intent. I want to believe otherwise: that An Abbreviated Life has a parodic and deconstructive intent, using readers' conventional expectations and stock responses against them, as elements at odds with those expectations accumulate and complicate the warming formula. If my reading is correct, Leve's memoir is the third generation, a work as rooted in facts as books by Karr and Walls and a work more artfully subtle in its questioning of those "facts" than the memoirs by Winterson and Bechdel. Even if I'm wrong, discussing An Abbreviated Life at the Horrid Mothers Book Club should be intense because both mother and daughter may be horrid in ways that are unrecognizable to them but knowable to rigorous readers. Let the arguments begin and lay in the extra tissues.
Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reviewer: Tom LeClair