Friday, June 24, 2011

Inventing Memory... but not much else.

I just finished reading a book called _Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters_ by Erica Jong. I have a lot to say about it, but I'd only give it about two stars (which, according to the rating system, translates into "it was okay").

I am kind of a huge sucker for family sagas that span several generations. I loved _Middlesex_ by Jeffrey Eugenides and _White Teeth_ by Zadie Smith. So when I came across this at the library the other day, I thought I'd like it. From the dust jacket:

Spanning a hundred years, _Inventing Memory_ brilliantly interweaves the lives of four generations of unforgettable women, from the turn of the last century to the early years of the twenty-first century. Propelled out of 1905 Russia by a pogrom in which she loses her first child, her twin brother, and her father, Sarah Solomon arrives in an America of bowler hats, Irish cops, elevated subway cars, Jewish and Italian anarchists, and labor ferment. Establishing herself as an artist, Sarah lives with and loves two very different men: a landsman, Lev Levitsky, and Sim Coppley, a proper New York WASP who is in love with all things Jewish, including her. While Sarah and Lev embark on an artistic life together that will take them west to a newly established Hollywood, their wild, flapper daughter and avant-garde writer, Salome, cavorts in 1929 Paris with the likes of Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Gertrude Stein, until she learns a shocking secret that compels her to search for her WASP roots. Salome's daughter, Sally, destined to become one of the 1960s' most famous folksingers, is struck like lightning by fame, and with it the ravages of a counterculture that wreaked havoc upon the lives of so many young artists.

We meet Sally--and all of these women--through her daughter, Sara. Born in 1978, trained as a historian and in the process of researching her family history at the prestigious Council on Jewish History in New York, Sara finds herself drawn into the tumultuous lives of her ancestors via a sepia-tone photograph of her great-grandmother Sarah, for whom she was named. A single mother with a young daughter, Sara absorbs all she can of the strength of her great-grandmother and grandmother, and tries to make peace with the ghost of her own neglectful mother; she comes to understand the paradoxical, subjective nature of memory, and the way we invent, reinvent, and assimilate our ancestors.

Right off the bat, one thing in particular seemed odd to me: At just 300 pages (with decent-sized print to boot), it seemed hardly long enough to contain such a colorful set of characters and complicated storyline.

And my major issue with the book, in the end, was a lack of character development. All four of the protagonists had the potential to be interesting and colorful and completely engaging. But because Jong did not take the time to explain their motivations, they all fell flat.

There's no background on Sarah Solomon, for example. What was her personality like when she was living in Russia? Without that bit of insight, it's hard to understand why she comes to the US without knowing any English and all of a sudden out of the blue starts worshiping Emma Goldman. During that whole part of the novel I kept thinking to myself, "That's fucking awesome, but I don't understand why Sarah is such a die-hard anarchist."

And that question was never answered. Neither were most others.

Sarah's daughter Salome is an even bigger mess of a character. At seventeen, she goes to Paris to write a novel and hangs out with all the cool people who were writing in Paris at that time. Then, she comes back to the US, and there's this twenty-year lapse and all of a sudden it's the 1950s and she's all tangled up in McCarthyism. Also, she marries this guy named Aaron who has what sounds like PTSD; he witnessed a lot of terrible shit during World War 2 in Europe and made several suicide attempts. His emotional instability is what causes his daughter Sally to spend the 1960s in a marijuana fog, writing folk songs about deadbeat dads.

Around this point in the book, I started to get the impression that Jong took all of the important events of the twentieth century and deliberately placed her characters in the middle of them. I think that she should have researched things more, gotten a bit of dirt on a few of the celebrities she mentioned, and then cut out the rest. I started making notes to myself every time a celebrity was mentioned, but I soon got bored of it. Between Sarah, an artist living in the early twentieth century; Salome, a writer in Paris in the 1920s; and Sally, a folksinger in the 1960s, there were a lot, and in my opinion, too many for any of the references to be meaningful to the story.

One of my favorite books of all time is _Blonde_ by Joyce Carol Oates. It's an account of Marilyn Monroe's life, from birth to death, in novel form. It reads a lot like a biography, but it's largely fictional. Oates did tons and tons of research on Monroe's life, and then because she's a very brave badass, she took a lot of liberties and created this brilliant beast of a novel about one of the biggest pop culture icons of the twentieth century.

That book could have been a giant disappointment. What is there left to say about Marilyn Monroe that hasn't already been said? But Oates found lots to say: nearly 800 pages' worth, in fact.

This is where Jong fell short. Her protagonists interacted with many historical figures. But I gained no insight on those people from what I read.

For example, at one point in the novel, Salome's hanging out with a bunch of famous writers in Paris:

They were all there... Miss Stein to Sam Beckett, Val Miller to James Joyce.

How the great ones avoid each other! Still, there was a moment when Beckett, Joyce, and Miller all pulled up chairs near each other, but they were accosted by their sycophants and admirers before they could speak a word.

To Miss Stein, however, the very fact of the chairs being pulled up connotes conspiracy.

"A chair is a chair is a chair is a chair is a chair is a chair," she says.

Like, really? You have the opportunity to write a scene wherein your protagonist interacts with Gertrude Stein--who was one hell of an interesting person--and all you can come up with is the most overused Gertrude Stein reference ever?

After about a million scenes like that (Sally the 1960s folk singer does too many drugs, dies, and Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell all turn up at the funeral), I began to find it all ridiculously hilarious. But that's just because after a while, I decided to read it that way in order to make the book more enjoyable.

I don't know. This book contains a lot of great insights, but none of them struck me as profound, because due to lack of character/plot development, the book wasn't set against a very believable backdrop. And that's sort of ironic, given that it brings back to life many people who actually existed at one point, and contributed to the political/artistic landscape that this novel is trying to revive for this generation.


  1. Try reading _London_ by Edward Rutherfurd. It's the entire history of London, England, and it's told through a family. I haven't read it yet, but my mum and my grandmother tell me it's awesome.

  2. My mom actually owns a copy of that book. I don't know whether she's read it; I don't recall her telling me anything about it. But I'll definitely check it out now. Thanks for the recommendation! :)