Micro-Memoirs of a Life Lived and Imagined
By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor
HEATING & COOLING: 52 MICRO-MEMOIRS by Beth Ann Fennelly (W.W. Norton & Co, October 2017) 112pp, $22.95.
Beth Ann Fennelly, poet, novelist, letter writer, and writing program administrator, tells a large story with her nuanced collection of “52 micro-memoirs,” some a sentence or two long, some several pages long; some like the flare of a match, some complexly plotted and told, some jokes, some disturbing confessions or probing discoveries. All are sophisticated, and most are self-standing, as suggested by their publication in some seventeen literary magazines over the past year or so, ranging from the Missouri Review to American Poetry Review. The first of her work I read was in The Cincinnati Review, Summer 2016, and included this Carveresque (Hemingwayesque) rejection of sentimentality:
He was dying, he would soon be dead. My mother had told me as I visited him at the VA hospital. She had prepped me on what to expect: the urine-colored eyes, the distended belly, the dementia and palsied hands. I pulled up a chair to his deathbed. I wondered if I should say “I love you.” That phrase corresponded to nothing, but I didn’t want guilt later. I didn’t want to suffer remorse because the last time I saw my father, I didn’t tell him I loved him. I could hear my own future voice, If only I’d said I loved him. I wanted to spare my future me, whom I did love. So I told him I loved him and I left.”
I was hooked. All we need are the abstract roles “Mother” and “Father” and “dying” to get involved. I loved the colloquial sting of “prepped,” the unsparing physical details (“urine-colored,” “distended,” “palsied”) and the confessional honesty: “I didn’t want guilt later…I wanted to spare the future me.” Only part of her complaint is about mortality; the rest is about their troubled relationship.
In the Fall 2016 Missouri Review, I found more laconic micros (including “The Grief Vacation”), along with her “Meet the Author” statement: “Some of the micromemoirs are simply memories. Some are cultural commentary, or observations, or conversations…collected, an aggregate portrait emerges—the moments, big and small, that make up a life.”
An aggregate portrait, indeed. Heating & Cooling explores her childhood in Lake Forest, Illinois, her parents, her sister, school friends, early experiences with “rigid” Catholicism, love of reading, dreams of success, awareness of sexism; her adolescence; college at Notre Dame, when she “[s]wapped the rosary on my bedpost for Mardi Gras beads,” took a year in Europe, enjoyed men, envied worldly women, and was considered a bad influence by a friend; graduate school at Madison, Wisconsin, on a poetry fellowship and first college teaching at age twenty-eight; meeting her husband, also a writer and teacher; marathon running and training; the search for teaching jobs; birthing, mothering, and parenting two daughters and a son, while leading a professional life; settling in Mississippi; grieving the deaths of her father and sister, and dreading her mother’s decline; loving her husband, but fantasizing about other men and women; troubled by glitter and materialism; troubled by her first daughter’s troubles; and troubled by the wages of privacy and emotional honesty in writing memoir.
From her mid-life perspective, the motifs swirl, weave, and build, while chronology serves more like a keyboard than an organizing principle. Commentary on religion, for instance, appears in connection with her father’s rigidity in “I Survived the Blizzard of 1979” (p.35), then recurs in connection with her husband in “If You Were Born Catholic, You’ll Always Be Catholic” (p.53). The series called “Married Love, I, II, III, IV, V” both bookends and is scattered throughout the collection, combined with other stories from her marriage—the most hilarious being “Why I’m So Well Read” (p. 27), where the bookish couple first hides money, and then an embarrassing photo of the husband in the pages of different books; they then forget the titles, keep searching, and fear they’ve lent the books to students. “It’s been nineteen years,” she writes. “Even now, middle-class and middle-age, I never open a book without hoping for a fifty or a penis.”
Her voice is reminiscent of Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Lorrie Moore; and her art, like theirs, combines sentiment with humor and irony. There’s “Small Talk at Evanston General,” for instance, where her mother is being examined, and the doctor asks her, the daughter, what she does, and when she says she’s a writer, says “’Oh…me too,’” then “draws dashes on my mother’s naked chest, indicating where his scalpel will go.” But in Fennelly’s case, family love outweighs the dread and anger. In another stunner, “The Grief Vacation,” Fennelly is mourning the recent loss of her sister, but then must go to a distant campus for a reading, where nobody is aware of her loss. Over dinner, she forgets herself: “they laughed she laughed and overserved herself laughing and thought: This…is mirthful.” But then she returns home, and deplaning: “She threaded her arms into the sleeves of grief. She huffed it over her back. She snugged it around her shoulders. She buttoned herself tight. Its weight was dear. Dear, dear, dear. She would wear it forever now. Indeed, not one soul would recognize her without it.”
There is a feminist edge shared by still other stories. In “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As a Synonym for ‘Weak,’” she describes giving birth: “I was alone in it. I understood I would come back with the baby, or I wouldn’t come back at all….I was beyond the grasp of men.” She admires independent women in “Oranged-shaped Hole,” “The Neighbor, The Chickens, and the Flames,” and “Galore”; and warns her daughter about piggish assaults by men in “Daughter, They’ll Use Even Your Own Gaze To Wound You.” In the title story, she confesses to her attraction to both the contractor who built her house and the tradesman called in to service its air-conditioning unit. “Authority makes me horny,” she admits, and is “puzzled by my failures as a feminist.”
There’s nothing easy in Fennelly’s cheerfulness or her vision of an intimacy that allows for negatives, such as a cyst on her husband’s back or a piece of gravel removed from her hand. The high points of this collection—stories both lived and imagined—promise to become classics.
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