Thursday 7 January 2010

'learning how to vanish'

Waking Up In Toytown

by John Burnside

In his first memoir, A Lie About My Father, Burnside focused on his foundling father, a hard-drinking, tough-love kind of man, but also charted his own drink and drug fuelled descent into the abyss and the painful realisation that he couldn't help but see that man he hated so much at times staring back at him when he looked in the mirror. His second memoir puts himself at the centre of the picture but once again he chooses to filter his revelations through portraits of those around him, in this case the many misfits and failed relationships that peppered the past that was 'Not so long ago when I was still mad'. This is no misery-memoir though, fear not, Burnside not only has little sympathy for himself but is able to employ the dark humour of his fiction and an unflinching honesty to illuminate what he admits is a fairly tawdry and shameful period in his life. The madness in this case is the result of a condition called apophenia, described by the schizophrenia specialist Klaus Conrad as 'the unmotivated seeing of connections' coupled with the 'specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.' Or as Burnside more pithily puts it 'seeing things that weren't there.' But let's not go too deep, too soon.

Readers of the LRB may have come across one chapter of this book already, entitled Losing Helen (If you're a subscriber and missed it you can view it here, if you're not a subscriber you can buy it!) . Burnside uses the sudden death of a work colleague to achieve many things simultaneously. Firstly a vivid portrait of a working community, but most importantly he provides an honest account of losing somebody he wasn't really that close to, a death that still looms large in his memory, assuming its own importance. It teaches him something about memory which is crucial to the book.

She is a story, nothing more - but then maybe this is why we tell ourselves stories, in order to work out why we remember some things more than others, why some events live on in the mind, why some faces and voices persist for decades, to be resurrected in the dark by an insomniac who wakes knowing he has certainly lost something on the way, but has no idea what it is. Which means, of course, that the story I am telling is not about this dead girl after all: it isn't about her, it's about me. It's not about her life or her death: it's about what I lost and how, whatever that lost thing might be, it resembles her in some way.

In a way the book as a whole is an attempt to piece together or reclaim what was lost. As in his first memoir he examines the veracity of memory and experience, the fictionalisation of remembrance, describing it at one point thus:

My memory of that time is more than a little confused, and I can't fully account for how I got clear. What I do recall is a room that I can picture so precisely, it doesn't feel like a memory at all. It's more like the film I saw last night, or a photograph from a magazine where the central figure is strangely familiar, even if he isn't quite the person whose name first comes to mind. This central character - the one vague spot in a memory that is otherwise extremely vivid - is familiar in the way that an actor in an old black-and-white film noir would be familiar if I saw him out of context, crossing the road in my home town, maybe, or paying his bill at the cafe on the high street...Now that this is a story I am telling - and it's me telling it, not him - I can accept that the central figure in this scene is a version of myself, or at least someone I used to be; but when I say as much, it seems wrong, because what I recall is so obviously an actor or an impostor playing a role, and even that role, even the character he is pretending to be, is not the person I think of now when I try to summon up the image of myself then.

He is on his bed surrounded by bottles filled with a sweet smelling dark gold liquid, 'a mixture of blood, honey, alcohol, olive oil and urine'. On the top of each open bottle is a feather 'balanced precariously...If one feather falls, then the spell fails.' The spell is to protect the naked man on the bed, pinned there for two days after witnessing a terrifying incident (in all probability only in his mind) that he cannot begin to recall today.

This is the nadir from which he is lifted, seeking solace and making an attempt towards normality by moving to his version of Surbiton - 'Shorthand for a place that almost existed' - in his case, the suburbs outside Guildford. Anyone who has lived in suburbia will know that the veil of normality can hide some pretty strange goings on and Burnside finds many other routes to dysfunction. As he says, 'all craziness is kin.' It isn't just the intake of alcohol and drugs that drives that journey but the faltering connections between people.

Friendship, or at least drinking companionship, is soured when his buddy attempts to enlist him in the murder of his wife, inspired by Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train. A relationship turns out to be based on love for the woman's children rather than her herself (Burnside describes brilliantly the way that the daughter 'chooses' him, her love and attention impossible to resist). When love really does come along it is in a form that makes it unacceptable. Each chapter describes another instance in which he attempted to be normal, to disappear into the everyday world and was found wanting. I always wondered where he got the ability to make the mundane into something beautiful in his fiction. Now having read more about his own battles to silence voices and find rest, his search for what the Japanese call 'wabi-sabi: the state of quotidian grace in which everyday objects and events become sacraments', I've come a little closer to understanding.


Philip Dodd 13 February 2010 at 12:42  

Did my own review of this. Read yours just after doing mine, liked your slant. Have a look at http://bit.ly/bNLLHd great book isn't it. Like your blog too, I'll be back.

William Rycroft 14 February 2010 at 15:12  

Hi Philip and thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed the book and my thoughts. It was good to read your own. As someone who's clearly a fan of Burnside I'll point you towards the interview I did with him which can be found here. Fascinating stuff I think.

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