I’ve just read two of the funniest memoirs ever, and both have left me with some serious reflections as to the place of humour in our lives. The first was Shirley Jackson’s hilarious account of bringing up a family entitled Life Among The Savages. I’ve never read any of Jackson’s other work, although I did know that she wrote gothic horror novels but in a way that put her on the classics shelf rather than in the genre section. Well, Life Among The Savages is simply one long, uninterrupted hoot from the start, when Jackson, her husband and their two small children move out of New York and into a gloriously eccentric house in deepest Vermont, right until the finish, when Jackson brings her fourth baby home to greet the household (after her husband and eldest son have been surreptitiously running a book on when she’ll finally have it).
There is nothing in here that the average wife and mother won’t recognize from the daily struggle with chaos, from philosophical musings on the mentality of motherhood: ‘I realized how thoroughly the housekeeping mind falls into the list pattern, how basically the idea of a series of items, following one another docilely, forms the only possible reasonable approach to life if you have to live it with a home and a husband and a children, none of whom would dream of following one another docilely’; to the impossibility of getting children through breakfast and out to school with any semblance of order; to keeping household help (one particularly nice girl she traces via her parole officer to the local jail when she fails to turn up one morning); to the living nightmare that is a family shopping expedition, particularly when one daughter has seven imaginary friends who all have to come along. What makes this so delightful is Jackson’s turn of phrase. The line ‘Now, I have nothing against the public school system as it is presently organized, once you allow the humor of its basic assumption about how it is possible to teach things to children’ had me laughing out loud. And the great comic set pieces are just a treat.
What Jackson does so brilliantly is to capture the surrealism of family life with its impossible combination of adults forced to explain and impose standards of behaviour that collapse into ludicrousness under the stern eye and wild logic of your average four-year-old. The result is that usual family compromise that looks like madness and indulgence to grown up people who have no children, and parents who have forgotten the tragi-comedy of those early years. Jackson also has a wonderful ear for the eccentricity of child talk, its odd, borrowed adultness, its surreality, its gorgeous self-obsession. Her husband is equally well-drawn, a man who is trying to maintain a steady grip on his own personal requirements, despite everything that happens around him. There’s a beautiful anecdote in which Jackson’s three children fall in love with a big empty box that arrives at the house. After each child has hidden in it and pretended to be a present (which Jackson declares must be sent back to the shop), the children rush off and after much whispered consultation, Jackson hears her husband say ‘All right, but just once’. This time, however, when the children burst into the kitchen to collect her, they get distracted by the appearance of the dinner she is preparing and it’s only when Daddy can’t be found to come to the table that her son recalls he had something to tell her about him, if only he could remember what it was.
Anyway, I was cheerfully reading this book and thinking, fantastic, here’s a prime example of a creative mother, bringing up four children, managing splendidly to attend to her literary life and her maternal duties. Believe you me, I am thin on the ground where healthy, happy, creative mothers are concerned. I had little subheadings running through my head along the lines of: is humour the key to family life? So I looked up Shirley Jackson on wikipedia and who’d a thunk it? It turns out she was a woman who suffered from neuroses and psychosomatic illnesses and got herself into an early grave with a combination of prescription pills and heavy smoking. What shocked me was that you would never guess this in a million years from the tone of her memoir; it’s purely, evenly comic throughout. It’s so even in tone that I had to put it down from time to time, to let reality intervene. But the reality of Jackson’s character to one side, I would thoroughly recommend this book – it’s like Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, only with fewer animals.
Then I read another memoir, equally funny, equally uniform in tone, and yet deeply, profoundly disturbing. This book is a recent release, Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher. Fisher is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, a marriage that didn’t last long before Fisher ran off with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher grew up on tour with her mother, and shot to stardom at the age of nineteen by playing the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars (a film that clearly did nothing to aid her sanity). She also married the extremely well-known singer-songwriter, Paul Simon and had her first novel made into a movie before she was thirty. She is careful at all times to tell us that she therefore had nothing to complain about as far as her early life was concerned; she was brought up in luxury, with iconic parents, a talented, creative woman who found personal fame with rapidity and ease. And yet nothing, nothing was normal or orthodox in her life. If you’ve ever believed that this kind of Hollywood existence is something to aspire to, read this book. Within five pages it becomes apparent that it cocoons its victims in the strangest fantasies, desires and insecurities. Fisher claims it wasn’t due to her unusual childhood that she ended up an alcoholic and a drug addict with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome (that was after her gay friend died of an accidental overdose in her bed, but that’s another story), but the crazy unreality of her life just screams off the pages, even if it takes the form of witty, deadpan humour with probably the best use of the ironic exclamation mark ever.
Here, for instance, is how she got into drugs: ‘The first time I did drugs was when I ws thirteen. Before we lost all our money, my family had a vacation house in Palm Springs, about two hours outside of Beverley Hills where I ostensibly grew up. So periodically my mother used to rent that house in Palm Springs to these people who, after one of their stays, left behind a bag of marijuana. Who knows? Maybe they left it intentionally, a kind of chemical sacrifice on the altar of appreciation for their time there. Anyway, after my mother found the pot, she came to me and said, “Dear, I thought instead of you going outside and smoking pot where you might get caught and get in trouble – I thought you and I might experiment with it together.” Well, frankly at the time, and let’s face it – even now – I couldn’t imagine anything weirder. But what actually came to pass was that after presenting this bizarre, albeit marginally appealing proposal, my mother got swept back up in the whirlwind of her life and promptly forgot about it. But being the crafty, eager-for-the-altered-state person I was destined to become, I absolutely did not.’ I came to the conclusion that you could read the memoir in two voices; the first is perky and upbeat and distanced, the second is slurred and weepy and cynical, and might be accompanied by the sound of a whisky chaser being slung into a shot glass. Of course this fits right in with Fisher’s bipolar disorder, the seamless transition from a monstrous high to a monstrous low: ‘when you’re manic, every urge is like an edict from the Vatican. No plan is a bad one, because if you’re there and you’re doing it, it can’t be bad. It’s like a bank error in your favour. Mania is, in effect, liquid confidence… when the tide comes in, it’s all good. But when the tide goes out the mood that cannot and should not be named comes over you and into you. Because to name it would be an act of summoning.’
By the end of the book, Fishers voice sounded to me like the funniest, most dangerous, most damaged voice I had ever read. Every time she has a little insight, like the one above, it strikes her as too serious, and she rushes off into the realms of surreal fantasy or the cheap joke. It’s a memoir, sure, but a patchy, fragmented, odd one, that chooses a punchline over an explanation every time. It’s good, but in a worrying way. And all of this led me to wonder about the use and abuse of humour. Is being funny on the side of the angels or the demons of our minds? Do we use it to transcend what’s almost unbearable, or do we use it to disguise and distort the things we really ought to deal with? Do we slather it over our worst moments to make ourselves feel better, or to make others feel better about us? I don’t have any answers, but it was curious that two consistently amusing books should make me question just how healthy it is to look on the bright side of life.