Category: Autobiography

Joseph Anton

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdieby Salman Rushdie

ISBN: 978-0812992786

“Art was strong, artists less so. Art could, perhaps, take care of itself. Artists needed defenders. He had been defended by his fellow artists when he needed it. He would try to do the same for others in need from  now on, others who pushed boundaries, transgressed, and, yes, blasphemed; all those artists who did not allow men of power or the cloth to draw lines in the sand and order them not to cross.”

“When life was a series of crises and emergency solutions, it was normality that felt like a luxury—infinitely desirable, yet unobtainable.”

On Valentine’s Day 1989, British Indian author Salman Rushdie received not a valentine or a love letter, but a death sentence in the form of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini because his novel, The Satanic Verse (1988), had been deemed blasphemous by the Iranian theocracy. What followed was a decade under the protection of British special police, moving from house to house in armoured cars in constant fear of his life. The author Salman Rushdie disappeared into the persona of Joseph Anton, the alias he was forced to assume even in his own home. A combination of the names of Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad seems appropriate, as Rusdhie takes us into his own personal heart of darkness. In the outside world, Salman Rushdie the author also disappeared, as the press constructed alternate images of a blasphemous infidel and cultural traitor or a brave hero struggling against censorship. Joseph Anton chronicles Rushdie’s struggle to hold on to his identity as a writer, even while his daily life was being consumed by the details of living under protection, fighting with the British government for assistance in having the fatwa lifted, and coping with his crumbling personal life.

The fatwa threatened to steal Rushdie’s voice, both as a writer and as his own defender. As a novelist, he struggled to continue writing when his hours were absorbed with the search for his next safe house, or struggling to arrange his next visit with his young son. Both he and his book were banned from his native India, the source of much of his inspiration. He feared that writing about India when he could not travel there would cause the setting to ring false. In terms of his self-defence, Rushdie was advised by many to keep silent, since his “unrepentant” attitude towards his novel was perceived as aggravating the situation. However, as chronicled in the pages of Joseph Anton, Rushdie came almost uniformly to regret those decisions which erred on the side of silence or compromise. Joseph Anton is unabashedly honest, even in the places where it reveals Rushdie’s darkest moments from blackest rage to morbid humour. If Rushdie is sure that he was right, he is equally certain that he was not always good during these years. After so many years of silence and repressing his opinions, they flood out here in full force. Some are vitriolic and uncharitable, but perhaps needed to be said.

As discussed in The Storytelling Animal, humans have a strong tendency to impose narrative order on our lives through storytelling. Rushdie performs this act quite deftly, demonstrating the split between Salman Rushdie and Joseph Anton by writing his memoir in the third person, in effect novelizing his life. Joseph Anton is a vast document, chronicling Rushdie’s early life in India, his British education, and his rise as a novelist, in addition to the years living under the fatwa. In size and scope, it is similar to many of his novels, broad and brimming with detail. The fatwa dragged on for many years, and it weighs, not inappropriately, on the narrative momentum as the days and years slip into one another. Real lives are messy and do not easily fit into the forms we prescribe for fiction. From a remove of twenty-plus years, Rushdie is also able to contextualize the events that followed the fatwa into the larger political and cultural conflicts that followed, noting that “the wars of ideology and culture were moving to the center of the stage. And his novel, unfortunately for him, would become a battlefield.”

What Joseph Anton decidedly is not is story of espionage. Although the security precautions and risk assessments—in the early years of the fatwa Rushdie fell only one level below the queen herself—necessarily play a part in the story, they are not as central as those outside the protection might expect. Rushdie notes that while the memories of his friends during that time were all of police officers and safety measures, the moments he clung to were the few bits of normalcy he was able to glean. Joseph Anton is a darkly affecting chronicle of a man who chose to be a father and writer, but who was also cast into the roles of villain, heretic and free speech advocate.

Are You My Mother?

Cover Image for Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdelby Alison Bechdel

ISBN 978-0618982509

In interviews about her first autobiographical comic, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel was often asked how her mother felt about the book, which revealed that her father was a closeted gay (or possibly bisexual) man who may have committed suicide after two significant family events; Bechdel came out as a lesbian, and her mother asked him for a divorce. Her newest book, Are You My Mother? is the extended answer to this much-asked question, as well as exploration of her overall relationship with her mother. Although her father is infrequently depicted in this sequel, his sexuality and his death, and Bechdel’s subsequent decision to write about them, loom over the narrative.

As in Fun Home, Bechdel makes unusually textual use of the graphic novel form. She painstakingly renders and even highlights typed pages, books, and computer screens. There are entire panels filled with text when there is too much for a caption. Literature and literary theory formed a core part of Bechdel’s development of her understanding of her sexuality in Fun Home, and in Are You My Mother? it is psychological theory which performs a similar role, framing the narrative and causing it to cohere. This is a more difficult task than in Fun Home, which was written after her father’s death, and on which Bechdel could retroactively impose order. Bechdel’s mother is still alive, and the process of writing a book about their relationship necessarily had an effect upon it. Bechdel also repeatedly casts her therapists as replacement mother-figures, further complicating the role of psychology in the narrative.

Bechdel’s mother uses the term “metabook” to describe Are You My Mother? and reviewers would be hard pressed to come up with a better description. As evidenced by this review (and many others), it is difficult to discuss one without reference to the other. It is indeed a book about the process and consequences of writing another book, and thus cannot be fully understood without having read Fun Home. This dependency is further complicated by the second sense in which it is a metabook; the process of writing Are You My Mother? itself is chronicled in these pages. As a standalone narrative, it coheres only loosely and relies too heavily on psychology and literature to give it form. However, for those who read Fun Home and wondered how and why someone would feel compelled to write about private family affairs, Are You My Mother? is required reading.

We Learn Nothing

Cover Image for We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider by Tim Kreider

ISBN 978-1439198704

In We Learn Nothing, writer and political cartoonist Tim Kreider delivers a humourous book of clear-sighted anecdotes and cartoons about, in his own words, “dark, hilarious universal truth[s].” This is a tall order to fill, but Kreider is indeed able to make stories taken from his own life apply to the world at large. Appended to each essay is a cartoon in which Kreider caricatures himself with the same brutal honesty with which he is known for rendering former President George W. Bush. The best of these is the meta-cartoon in which Kreider chronicles the story of the story about the time he was stabbed in the neck. The cartoons are funny and enjoyable, but few besides “The Stabbing Story” truly serve to enhance the narrative. They do, however, give a comical physical presence to the people Kreider has been describing. He is a good cartoonist, but he may just be a better writer.

Kreider is an amusing and pointed cultural observer who calls things as he sees them. We all wish we could be this matter of fact about the ups and downs of life and our own personal failings and political biases. Known for his unabashedly anti-Bush cartoons, Kreider delivers a surprisingly level headed essay about the left/right divide in American politics, which is perhaps the highlight of the book (“When They’re Not Assholes”).  Kreider attends a Tea Party rally after a period of purging himself of politics following the end of his job as a political cartoonist and comes face to face with a former student who is now one of the organizers of the rally. His illusion of impartially is further smashed when a Tea Partier calls him a “Moby”, which turns out to mean Tea Party Poseur.

Although Kreider is at his best on home ground, discussing political issues, he is also an astute observer of the social “politics” of personal interactions. His essays cover the loss of three friends—one dies, one stops calling him back, and the other he defriends due to an obsession with peak oil—the subtle changes in his relationship with his friend, novelist Jenny Boylan, after she undergoes gender reassignment, and the forging of new relationships with two half sisters he didn’t know he had. These stories challenge our assumptions about mental illness, gender and what it means to be family.

Kreider never seems to be trying too hard, and yet is funny even when the situation shouldn’t be humourous at all. If you enjoy cynical essays in the tradition of David Rakoff, We Learn Nothing is an excellent pick.

Already read and enjoyed We Learn Nothing? I recommend Don’t Get Too Comfortable  by David Rakoff.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Cover for Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoffby David Rakoff

ISBN 978-0767916035

Commonly known as an internet meme, “first world problems” are at the centre of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, a 2005 collection of humourous autobiographical essays by David Rakoff. Loosely organized around the theme of creature comforts and their attendant absurdities, the recently deceased Rakoff riffs off his experiences as a journalist and new American. Fans of his work may recognize a number of the pieces as having been published in various magazines. Rakoff’s anecdotes make rich and entertaining fodder for examining the peculiar excesses of American life from super-sonic jet rides to $300 fad fasting diets to penis puppetry art shows.

Rakoff’s frequently self-deprecating humour and criticism tempers the strangely genial misanthropy of his constant diatribe. He does not hold his personal foibles apart from the social commentary or exempt himself from scrutiny. His own first world excess is gamely revealed in an essay about his abiding love for endless hours spent on Martha Stewart arts and crafts. As a Canadian-turned-American, he presents the perspective of an immersed outsider, able to both observe and participate in the consumerist shenanigans.

Readers expecting a well organized argument towards a thesis of American excess may be disappointed, as many of the essays are only loosely thematic. It is quite possible to reach the end of some of the essays unsure of how they connect to the central conceit. Although all of the pieces are humourous, there are some long lulls between punch lines. However, Rakoff’s mastery of language means that his wittily turned finishes are usually worth waiting for. This quick read can be devoured in a single sitting, or picked up over days or weeks for a bit of light reading.