(The Feminist Press, 2011)
Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels
(The Feminist Press, 2011)
Memoir writing has grown commonplace. With the advent of Blogspot and the “Upload Photo” option on Facebook to capture minutiae, the actual art of creating a narrative out of the significant, and not-so, events in a life gets undervalued and ignored. Ultimately, what captures the reader’s interest is the power of the voice that tells it. In a pair of new books, Laurie Weeks and Justin Vivian Bond reveal how essential a distinctive voice can be; this duo is like the Beezus and Ramona Quimby of first-person accounts. The fictional heroine of Weeks’s work zigzags through life like a hyper-active younger sister to Bond’s poised and dignified adult real-life self.
Zipper Mouth is Weeks’s first novel after years of working and performing in the literary trenches of downtown New York. An unnamed copy editor wanders through her life in 1990s New York, filled with drugs and the unrequited love for Jane, her hazily straight best friend, the kind of girl who calls in the middle of the night to whine: “Why don’t I care about anything anymore? I used to be so young and frisky and full of hope … Am I so unlovable?” Jane is the ideal reservoir for our heroine’s epic loneliness, the source of which is only hinted at throughout this novel’s (mis)adventures through trashed apartments, dark clubs, and the occasional visit to her office, where she composes love letters to movie stars like Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis.
Weeks’s prose crackles throughout: “Her apartment was such an inferno that even looking at the burner’s gas flame threatened us with total personality disintegration.” And she captures the random, hilarious musings of an addict desperate to figure out her life, though she can’t help but veer off onto the cracked sidewalks to score more dope: “For years my body ambulated through the grid, chewing things up, devouring, almost always in a state of panic.” Her desperate letters to Sylvia Plath are arias of a dazzled view of victimhood and the pulsating envy of an artist who actually did something to control the chaos that surrounded her.
We root for Weeks’s character, flaws and all, because she is honest about her love of drugs and bewildered when her life doesn’t work out. Distracting herself from the hapless Jane with a homeless girl who takes up residence in her apartment, eating pudding, or a young straight guy with whom she can play out all of her Blanche DuBois fantasies, Weeks’s heroine is fun to be around; we identify with her feelings of helplessness and her desire to feel power over others.
Justin Vivian Bond (aka “v”) is nothing if not a voice: listen to the sharp lyrics on songs “American Wedding” and “The New Economy” on v’s magnificent new album Dendrophile.
In Tango, transhero(ine) Bond’s much longed-for coming-of-age memoir, a diagnosis of A.D.D., and the discovery that v’s first lover was incarcerated for impersonating a drug officer, kicks off a self-reflective narrative about growing up in 1970s West Virginia, and how A.D.D. might have colored all the relationships v forged during a very bewildering childhood.
While the book is full of smart and funny passages, regarding the importance of wearing lipstick when leaving the house for the day, the doomed friendship with a Neely O’Hara-like girl named Lesley, and psychosexual gamesmanship, the reader senses how “behaved” v is being in the writing. Whereas in performance, v is a sharp and mercilessly witty social critic, the prose here feels awfully composed (“At this point they were so worried about me and so desperate to get me back on the right track that it was becoming easier to convince them to let me do things that they normally wouldn’t allow”) and stiff (“I had faith that the depression would pass, given some time and some good sex. And it did”).
Perhaps channeling the adolescent trans boy’s voice was the aim in this polite memoir. The evocation of 1970s pop culture is astute. But hopefully, v will bring some of the wild and unpredictable energy from the stage to Tango’s sequel. For, in today’s culture, recycling is mistaken for cutting edge entertainment, and the only thing more inevitable than a memoir is its sequels.