Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Your Voice in My Head

Emma Forrest's Your Voice in My Head came so highly recommended to me I felt it should have arrived with gilded gold lettering and a velvet cover. Or something appropriately rich and tacky to visually illustrate the raves granted upon its bindings by the person doing the recommending.

Seriously. I'm not sure I have had a book so heavily hyped to me ever, and this is saying something given how much I read.

The problem with hype, especially when it brews at a personal level, is the acute awareness of the possible arguments and unintentional insults arising should you not like the book as much as the person who started the hype. Reading the book becomes a burden of anticipation and, if you are like me, you may put it off and put it off until you just give in or resoundingly shove it away.

I gave in and plowed through it in one sitting. Then I picked it up a few days later and skimmed back through the pages. I knew I'd be quizzed on it so wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything.

Overall, Your Voice in My Head is intended, I think, as a humorous memoir. It certainly isn't a humorless memoir. Forrest is quite adept at laying out the one-liners with a nice cutting edge. One of my faves: "I hate it when Beyoncé wins a Grammy and in her speech thanks God. He didn't have time to help out in Darfur but he made sure you won an MTV Moonman." Can I hear a resounding "amen"?

In way of a synopsis, the story begins in 2000 when Forrest first comes into contact with Dr. R following a suicide attempt. She sees Dr. R over a span of 8 years, the relationship only ending upon his death. Forrest is devastated, as anyone would be, especially since she had no idea he was ill. The narrative takes this event as the trigger point for much of what follows. And what follows are revelations of depression, mental illness, bulimia, romantic highs and lows, and cutting.

Lest you think Forrest's story is just like numerous other memoirs which cover similar ground, consider this quote:
Chicken and egg: which comes first, looking at yourself with burst blood vessels on your eyes and vomit in your hair and having to cut yourself because you're so ugly? Or eating everything in the cupboard to try to hold down how ugly the cutting has made you? It is madness. And if you don't know who you are, or if your real self has drifted away from you with an undertow, madness at least gives you an identity.
These are not words of a simple person with simple motives and with a simple story.

What these words relay to me is that this isn't a story of self-pitying, of a self-affected girl seeking external validation for being "fucked up." It is decidedly a narrative devoid of self-pitying, which given the life lived could very easily of turned out being. It is more self-deprecating, self-attributing than anything else. There is introspection and consideration, creation and destruction, all of which are hard fought and rotate deeply within Forrest.

This is more than adequately illustrated in Forrest's relationship with Gypsy Husband (or GH), which is the bulk of the story. This relationship was (and possibly still is) one of the most emotionally crippling aspects of Forrest's young life. It would easy to blame GH for everything that happened but Forrest doesn't take the easy route. Both had faults and both are at fault for how it played out and she lays the facts bare. You may judge harshly, you may over-sympathize but what you cannot do is brush aside her ability to map logic to emotion while, at the same time, not condemning herself to the postures of intellectual superiority or the silliness of emotional haphazardness at any given moment. This is a talent which very few people possess in this particular micro-genre.

It is most likely I would have picked up Forrest's memoir without it being pushed upon me. I had read somewhere comparisons to Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Such endorsements piqued my interest, as both of these books had a strong impact on my life. I discovered these comparisons as being flimsy at best. All are memoirs, all deal with intensely personal ailments and ruminations yet I didn't feel a pull, a settled warmth towards Forrest like I did with Plath and Eggers.

This is because I wanted it to be more of a tribute to Dr. R, or rather just more. His death is the narrative pivot, the defining event for the book. Baring her admiration and respect, Forrest writes,
"[Dr. R.] was cheerful. He was an eternal optimist. There was nothing I could tell him that he'd tell me was as bad as I'd decided it was. 'Oh, and then I murdered a drifter. I stabbed him twenty-two times.' 'Only twenty-two times? That's fewer than twenty-three.' I trusted him completely. And I liked how he saw me. It's that simple." 
These are profound words expressing profound feelings. Yet, there is little explored in terms of what losing this particular relationship means to her.

Forrest does well to highlight the impact Dr. R had on others in life and in death. She does this by using comments left in the online guestbook setup for his New York Times obituary within the narrative. You get a very solid and clear idea of the type of doctor and person Dr. R was through these comments. But, extracting the impact he had on her life is rather muted and soft. Of course, her selection of specific comments provides a window into the type of doctor and person Forrest wants to project to us. But the narrative doesn't come to any meaningful or personal conclusion, which I now wonder is the point she's striving to make. That there is no meaningful conclusion to be had because the relationship is still, in some fashion, going on in her head. She can deal with and conclude the relationship with GH but does not necessarily strive to conclude the one with Dr. R.

I don't really know, and this is the best compliment I can provide for the book. There doesn't necessarily need to be anything tidied up at the end; I like puzzling out ideas and conclusions on my own. Ultimately, Your Voice in My Head is Forrest's story, her life and how it is played out and written out is for her to decide. And while I cannot achieve the same level of hype which foisted the book upon me, I can offer a suggestion to consider walking up to Forrest's window for a few hours and take a look inside. It may not be a life-altering read for you but her story is worthy of recognition as being life-altering.

Read an edited excerpt.

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