Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Running with Scissors

(Another attempt to review a book)

Augusten Burroughs got sent to live with his mother’s physiatrist, Dr. Finch, when he was twelve, got raped at thirteen by a thirty three old man who ended up going out with him, and dropped out of middle school because he felt too abnormal in comparison ( “I had nothing in common with these kids. They had moms that nibbled matchstick slices of carrot. And I had a mom that ate matchsticks. They went to bed at ten o’clock while I was discovering that life could go on well past three in the morning.”) With this material and more, he writes a memoir about his childhood in three hundred pages.
It really does not matter what happened veridicaly in his life or if most of it is a complete invention that he disguises as reality, what matters is that he led a dysfunctional life and he did one great job writing about it.
And as long as I can tell, being weird is “in” these days: Some even compete to act more fucked up than others, and even the rest of us who work really hard to fit into society can relate to the dysfunctional. But when the line between weird and normal has blurred decades ago, when the standards are not as clear, there is still The Dysfunctional, which is interesting enough, and then there is Augusten…

Not that someone with such a background as me could dare to make a remark about Augusten’s homosexuality, but I guess that the kick of this memoir is that besides dysfunctionality there is also homosexuality in it. My boyfriend, who read his other collection of essays “Magical Thinking” and got bored by half the book, would comment to me later: “I liked it until all he talks about is being gay.”
“Yeah, but you are a guy, and straight for what I know, so it’s obvious that you’re going to be biased about it,” in my opinion.
Until I stole that book along with the other memoir and read it:
“Wow. This is really, vividly gay.”
Was my first remark when I finished reading a chapter sarcastically named ‘The Joy of Sex (Pre Teen Edition)’ in were thirteen year old Augusten is obligated to give a blow job to Neil Bookman, a friend of the family, in the basement of his house. But arriving to the real point, and funny as it is made to be; this is the raw description of a rape, and it is a free tour through the sexual “dark zone” in a memoir where few authors have the courage to go (except in pulp fiction, maybe) and it is also one in where homosexuality becomes no more and no less different (scary, painful) than heterosexuality, which is basically the way things should be.
And reading the memoir this way, I should comment on how well Burroughs tells the story about his stolen innocence and how his life got messed up, until he found himself again, as a writer and as an individual amidst the ruins of the Finches’ kitchen, where the roaches slept and the plates where left untouched in the sink for years.

Burroughs seems to belong to the same generation of writers, who embraced their unconventional beings instead of repressing them, and through this route arrived to the truth, or some type of truth at least. Because it is not only Burroughs who has managed to sell his memoir so well: James Frey wrote about similar “I bet I am more fucked up than you are” issues regarding his drinking addiction, Chuck Palahniuk published a book with real essays that were “better than fiction,” and David Sedaris is a professional at mastering the art of writing about the dysfunctional. None of them seem to be able to escape the reality of their lives, and can only narrate their biographies by transforming their daily adventures into stories one would want to hear over fiction.

One of my favorite parts in “Running with Scissors” is when Augusten and his adoptive sister Natalie go on a trip to Cape Cod. After his boyfriend has mysteriously disappeared from his life, after figuring that maybe being a hairstylist would not be the right path for him, and unable to find a job, he sits at a bar while Natalie, who begs the waitress to get them a beer. Between greasy fries and burgers they talk:

‘What do you want to be when you grow up? Are you still going to be a hairdresser to the stars?’ Without knowing why I answered: ‘I’m going to run away to New York City and become a writer.’
Natalie looked at me: ‘you should you know. You’re the writer in the family.’
I laughed, ‘Oh, barf. I am not going to be a writer. I’d never even get into college.
‘Sure you would’ Natalie said. ‘You underestimate yourself you know’
‘Because you’ve always been a writer. For as long as I’ve known you you’ve had that pointy nose of yours tucked into some notebook. You’ve lived with my family and noticed every single thing about us. God, it’s spooky how good you are at imitating people.’
‘You have to read, like, Hemingway to be a writer.’
‘You don’t have to read Hemingway, he’s just some fat old drunk man,’ she said. ‘You just have to take notes, like you do already.’
‘Well, I don’t know. I’ll probably end up as a male prostitute.’”(289)

He probably would have had even better stories to tell us if he decided on prostitution as a career, but I’m kind of glad that he didn’t. Running with Scissors could be considered an awfully dramatic memoir, but one laughs through it because of the author’s wit to see the comedy inside the tragedy, and so it does have a hopeful ending although it does not need one, because, well, this is reality and we humans do not always live happily ever after, which is alright, as long as we can laugh about it as well.

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