“The story is you doing what you always do– exactly what you feel like doing at any given moment. Every few years you energetically dive into an ambitious project with blind faith, excitement based entirely on wishful thinking, that the thing you want to do will be seen for the valuable thing it is, even though you haven’t thought through the daunting details most people would carefully consider before starting out. You dive into a pool from a cliff and as you fall you check to see if there’s water there,” said the skeleton, hammer in one hand, tongs in the other.
OK, pops, lay it on me.
“You see, you wrote last time about the folly of thinking you can ever meaningfully ‘make a record’, yet, what is this Book of Irv but your attempt to make a record? You hope to write the story in a way that will move readers to identify with your side of the story, see your father as the implacable monster, move Terry Gross to coo sympathetically, have Lopate express admiration for your straight-forward, heroic honesty, ask insightful questions about your point of view. And please note, I wouldn’t dream of embarrassing you by mentioning the MacArthur grant you’re secretly waiting for so you can revolutionize the discussion of collaborative education and creative problem-solving in this country with your groundbreaking, or wind-breaking, student-run creativity workshop.”
“You see, Elie, what you are trying to do, once again, and I have to give you a certain credit for trying — is impossible. If you’d started thirty years ago, been paying dues all these years, getting credits and credentials, making contacts, cultivating a network of successful connections in your field you could call on for real-world favors and advice, if you’d applied yourself in high school, instead of virtually dropping out and graduating 823rd in your class, if you’d had the grades to go to a prestigious university, met the children of rich and influential people….”
All right, dad. With all due respect, that’s enough of your fucking bullshit. We learn this carping, discouraging, damning voice is called the “Internalized Victimizer” and it’s no smarter than the hopeful voices and it’s certainly much more destructive. I can give you a counter argument for every point you raised, along with my hackles, but I ain’t doin’ it, B. Going to continue this hard work.
Do you think I’m the only person in my gigantic generation to grapple with an extremely difficult and destructive parent? Do you think my life has progressed without gaining a few insights others might find interesting, even illuminating and useful?
“Good, well-said, genius. Back to my original question, then: what’s the story?”
It’s about brutality, betrayal and forgiveness. Your mother betrayed you, as her generation was being wiped out, you betrayed my sister and me, I eventually found a way to get over my anger enough to have one real conversation with you, in spite of your ruthless desperation not to have that conversation. A conversation you were very grateful for as you were dying.
“Mmmm, fascinating story. I see a best-seller in your future,” the skeleton made a show of clapping his claws. They sounded like castanets.
“You know, you once told a young writer to limit what she was writing about to one thing at a time. It muddies the story, you told her, to bring in too many things at once, tempting as it also is to try tell the whole story at once, the larger story with all the side stories and bringing in the interesting digressions from each side story, and all the back stories of each digression too.
“You told her about that great piece by Kurt Vonnegut I clipped out of the Times for you when you were in high school. Vonnegut gave a series of tips, the first being: always give your essay a title. This, he pointed out, will focus you on the subject at hand. It was excellent advice. Advice you pretty much follow on this gratuitous blahg here.
“Yet what are you doing now? Calling this tome The Book of Irv, containing, one presumes, the uncontainable, ineffably expanding, logic-defying universe that is a human life. You want to truly understand an individual human being through a book? Find an accomplished genius who has an excellent editor at a top publishing house. Give him a large advance, and a budget for a team of researchers and fact-checkers. And, guess what? That genius and his marketing team will still have to reduce the story to one essential paragraph. That’s what you’ll see in the New York Times capsule views of new and notable books.
“You are back to square one, without that one essential paragraph it all boils down to. It doesn’t matter what you produce, how much genuine insight or pathos you put on an individual page, you have to put it in a tidy package you can sell.
“Otherwise you have a mighty tree falling in the woods with only timid woodlands creatures around to admire the crash,” the skeleton looked off toward the Hudson River with sightless eyes.
An adversarial baby declares war on his parents from the crib, only to learn decades later that sometimes the best way to play the game is not to play.
“Fire that copywriter,” said the skeleton.
“Fuck the skeleton,” said the copywriter.
A brutalized boy survives a childhood of grinding poverty during the Depression, gets a Masters degree from an Ivy League school, follows an idealistic path while blaming his adversarial children for destroying his life.
“You make a joke, but you were a very, very fucking angry infant. From day one. You were in a fucking rage,” said the skeleton, jaw set.
I know, I remember it well. I recall coming home from the hospital, being placed next to the bed and glaring at you accusingly thinking ‘who the fuck is this asshole?’ You know, I couldn’t wait to learn to talk so I could start really giving you shit. As soon as I saw you, I remember thinking, I’m going to torture that piece of shit.
“Well, it’s nice to hear you finally admit it.”
No problemo, dad.
Angry baby learns his entire family was killed by the Nazis, asks his father about it. Father tells boy that he’s a whiny drama queen who wants to imagine he’s a victim. Boy attacks father, who responds violently, boy is taken to emergency room for treatment. Father forbids son to ever discuss the matter. Son discusses the matter. Discuss.
“Keep making jokes, Elie, that’s getting you closer to your goal of realizing there’s nothing here,” said the skeleton.
Nothing here, dad, nothing at all.