on The Importance of Music to Girls, a memoir by Lavinia Greenlaw (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

I enrolled in ROTC in September, 1968, but I don’t remember why, or what it felt like to make that decision. All I can dredge up are scattered images. But the story is notorious among my family and friends who retell it, adding nuances and imputations along the way. Their narrative constitutes my memory. Signing up for ROTC had something to do with my father and uncles advising, “If you go into ROTC, you can order the other guys to go over the hill.” My cousin Jerry ducked out with a med school deferment, but I was a college freshman. Some weeks later during a weapons disassembly drill, I squeezed several packets of cafeteria condiments into the trigger housing and barrel of an M-1 rifle, reassembled the gun, and returned it to the armorer. I don’t remember why. Perhaps it had something to do with a certain lack of respect for authority (which should have been aimed earlier at my family’s admonishments). I was charged with destruction of government property. However, my father and uncles were lawyers and, formerly willing to ship me off to the Mekong Delta, now they were determined to preserve the family’s good name. Since the government was wary of enflaming a campus controversy (an insouciant teenager with no scruples or anti-war sentiments, I was now a celebrity), the parties compromised: I would clean the rifle and receive an “F” in military science. Once swabbed out, the rifle fired perfectly, thus proving (as my uncles had shrewdly argued) that I had not destroyed the M-1. I had merely insulted it.

Vivian Gornick offers this definition of memoir and its obligations: “A personal narrative is a tale taken from life – that is, from actual not imagined occurrences – and is related by a first person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience out of the raw materials of one’s own life so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one that has meaning for the disinterested reader.”** The writer of personal narratives has certain responsibilities, but so does the reader, whose first obligation is to remember what memory is like. The attuned reader will mock the memoir that insists on an arc of understanding and the resolution of opposites. “The memoir wants to entertain the reader – needs, craves our interest in its foretold story,” writes David Lazar in “Occasional Desire.” “As such it can be a bit whorish … The essay, in contrast, is voice driven, question filled, metaphysically complex. Ultimately, its questions always threaten to overwhelm any possible answers.”** The differentiation between rhetorical styles is clear, but the indictment of the memoir as the form more inclined to inflate and patronize is unfair. “It all has to do with intention,” says Tobias Wolff in a The Wall Street Journal interview click here. “You leave things out, often without realizing it, and you are shaping it all the time … But when you set out to deliberately fictionalize, call it fiction.” Apparently, the writer distorts and “misremembers,” but as long as he is unconscious of the maneuver, the results are benign. This position, both reasonable and forgiving, reminds us that most everyone cheats on their taxes (paring but not eliminating truth and income) and only those who are both so unlucky to be audited and too creative in their paring get busted.

greenlaw.jpgLavinia Greenlaw’s memoir The Importance of Music to Girls doesn’t crave our indulgence, but it certainly does entertain. Born in 1962, Greenlaw grew up in Hampstead near London. Her parents, both doctors, moved the family to a village in Essex. She depicts her early experiences as a series of collisions and impingings. “I had as much capacity for delight as for fear and did not experience any unusual trauma. It was a matter of impact. All experience was trauma. I liked our noise yet came to find the volume of life too high, and I couldn’t turn it down, turned myself down instead. I felt like a cloud struck by lightning. This was how someone once described being in love to me, and it could be said that in terms of how the world acted upon me, I was in love.” Speaking of her mother, she says, “She had a lucidity that was dazzling and liberating but in some ways too clear. Sometimes I did not want to see more than I expected.” In Greenlaw’s work, a clearly wrought sentence with an incisive point gets more accomplished than the typical memoirist’s all-too-revelatory paragraph. Furthermore, the sonic quality of her prose – briskly delivered, suggesting the continuing wonderment of someone who knows not to make too much of any single insight -- both contrasts with the forces at work on the child, and establishes her mystique as adult. “By the time I was eight, I was taking on a fixed shape. It was as if for years I had looked for myself and at last was getting glimpses.” The figure of the child is the narrator’s own mythic character, rising out of the primordial sound-and-sight-ooze of family and schoolmates.

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Polly Samson wrote, “Greenlaw’s identity crisis is long, her neurosis deep, her growing pains agony and the constant throb of self-recognition is one of the pleasures of the book.” But as Greenlaw points out, the rough-edged experiences have the frisson of falling in love. I detect no identity crisis, no neurosis, and no homage to self-recognition. This is, in fact, one of the main currents of The Importance of Music to Girls: Becoming a “fixed shape” is a universal tragedy and rite of passage, not the looming neurosis of the tiny person. Greenlaw presents “a girl who was becoming fixed and so went in search of a buried self.” There is no pinning of psychic blame on parents. On the contrary, a raucous family offered a preparation of sorts. “She protected us from expectation,” she says of her mother, “and we grew up vague in our ambitions while gradually discovering what we were for. The complicated model I was given was no cover version. It made a complicated life seem possible.”

The Importance of Music to Girls is, after all, a book mainly about music. The songs inhabit the public and private spaces which otherwise would be occupied by understanding, orderly perception, and structured values. In 1970 at age eight Lavinia listens to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (“LAY LAY DEE LAY, LAYER PONYA BIG BRA SPED … UNTILLA BRAKE ODAYEE ...”), Simon and Garfunkel, the Moody Blues, the Beatles, and the soundtrack of West Side Story. Of Dylan: “What takes three minutes to play seemed to take ten minutes to listen to. It provoked emotions and suggested circumstances I couldn’t wait to experience – being trapped by regret or riveted by desire; trying to be offhand about passion or grown-up about loss; moving on or giving in. It was, for me, a rehearsal of feeling.” The story continues through all the pop genres of the 1970’s until Lavinia latches on to punk. “The reflexive ecstacies of childhood were gone and the adult pursuit of delight was beyond reach,” she writes. “I was stuck in march time, pounding out surplus energy … This is what music could do: change the shape of the world and my shape within it, how I saw, what I liked, and what I wanted to look like.” Being a teenager entailed a search for protean shapes, away from the fixed. The girlfriends and boyfriends, dancing and singing, group dynamics, the books she read and her education, and the shared music are all involved in the events and stories she tells, covered by this perspective:

“There were 180 pupils in my year at school, girls and boys, thirteen or fourteen, all undergoing monstrous change. Some burst out of their seams while others erupted through their skin. Some slowed down into men and women overnight, and took on gravity. Others found that their circuitry came loose, and while they were slowly being rewired, their hands and mouths did things that shouldn’t be seen or said as they blurted, stumbled, and twitched. There were those for whom it was all ooze, blush, sweat, and stink, and those who experienced such silence that even though they could see torment and confusion all around them, they prayed to be afflicted.”

Another British reviewer, Danuta Kean, offered this comment in The Independent Click here: “A memoir about music should be funny and passionate, but Greenlaw is too detached to be either.” No: Greenlaw crafted her memoir (inventing, inventing) to suggest the feel of experience, and devised a narrative voice that respects the audience’s own flair for subtlety and pause. She withholds analysis and emotional gush because the character of Lavinia was incapable of either one and Lavinia the narrator is trying to understand what she offers to explain. “I began to listen [to music] differently, like someone who has grasped prosody reads a poem differently. You have an idea of form an expectation and so are able to detect the ways in which the thing resists them” (unable to detect “the ways,” Ms. Kean has missed the point). The kids with spiked hair took the full brunt of the new force of postmodernism, another sort of bodily impact:

“Perhaps I wanted to be a shadow. Certainly I did not want to be known, but then I barely knew myself. I was still a child in that I operated instinctively, and while I could be horribly talkative, on certain matters I was mute. I was discovering the pleasure of belonging to a different kind of gang in which name, appearance, sexuality, and personality were so confusingly and overtly constructed that we were all strangers. Identity was worn rather than embodied. We were keeping ourselves apart and it was a respite from becoming, and having to be, clear.”

The Importance of Music to Girls is filled with music and the absence of a coherent self to listen to it. So Greenlaw invents a shiftable shape to depict the absentee. In 56 short chapters that are often as compressed as prose poems, Greenlaw’s memoir is profound in a playful way, and both episodic and non-linear: some unfixed psychic element surges from the invented girl to the memoirist, and back.

* Essays quoted above by Gornick and Lazar are among 20 collected in Truth in Nonfiction, edited by David Lazar, to be published in May by University of Iowa Press.

[Published May 6, 2008, 208 pp., $23.00, hardcover]