Friday, October 13, 2006

Angela's Ashes

Just tonight I picked up Alice Munro’s hot-off-the-presses book of short stories, [The View From Castle Rock] and read the first one. It is terrific writing, and really memoir-ish. Having recently read Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, I note that both of these veteran authors have come out in 2006 with very memoir-laden fictive reminiscive-ish stuff.
In the Foreword, Munro sort of explains what she is doing here... "These are stories.
You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book."
And also, she tells us she will be "...exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality."
Of course, I note all of this here, so that James Frey can take note of such definitiveness!
Reading the first Munro story tonight reminded me of perhaps one of my favorite memoirs I have ever read. Frank McCourt’s, Angela’s Ashes.

Charles Dickens once said, "In the little world in which children have their existence, whoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only a small injustice the child can be exposed to; but the child is small; and its world is small."
Angela's Ashes amounts to a brilliant recollection of childhood injustice which is indeed... LARGE!
As I read the book, I was appalled at the depth of poverty that Frank McCourt and his family endured, and yet, I can't count the number of times I actually laughed out loud at the way in which the story is told. I've never read anything so simultaneously light and weighty. McCourt is witty, and is always in character, and that character is the child who was an eye-witness to every event. (An intriguing, fiercely narrative writing style is consistent throughout the book. ie., there are never any quotation marks).
The story is a powerfully moving disclosure of the perils of alcoholism.
If Frank’s father could have just walked PAST a pub even once without going inside and spending every cent he earned or borrowed that day…. well, it would constitute a miracle! His dissolution put the family in a state of destitution. The amazing thing, to me, is that he spent that precious money so shamelessly. Mother and children practically starve while dad staggers home in a drunken stupor night after night. Frank says of his father's false promises... "He'll give us a nickel for ice cream if we promise to die for Ireland and we promise but we never get the nickel."
Injustice.

In my opinion, the redeeming majesty of this memoir is that through it we learn a wondrous fact... that shamelessness, irresponsibility, and stupidity do not necessarily have to be handed down to the next generation.
Frank broke the mold, and chose self-awareness as his aspiration. I believe that the crucial turning point in his life came when, at the age of eleven he was convalescing at a hospital and came to the conclusion that "it's lovely to know the world can't interfere with the inside of your head." As readers of Angela's Ashes, we become the grateful recipients of this precocious revelation.

Mr. McCourt has received much recognition for his book, and all of it is deserved. I have no idea what he has gained monetarily from its publication, but somehow I think it's a bit more than his aforesaid promised nickel. Way to go. You are an inspiration to the world.

I have his follow-up, ‘Tis, sitting right here, brand-new like, on my shelf?
Why have I not read it yet?
Umm.... I'm too drunk!

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1 comment:

Lostcheerio said...

While I get what you're saying about it being about the horrors of alcoholism... I also think there was a subtlety there... Frank still loved his father very much in spite of everything he did to make them miserable. And the father was very much part of this culture surrounding him, part of this category of men who "drank the dole" and as such was just expressing a common reaction to what was going on around him.

I ended up seeing the father as a sympathetic, if infuriating, character.

We just watched the movie last night -- it was quite good to see all the landscapes and the scenes brought to life, the child actors were amazing. Great scene in the church where he's confessing to having thrown up the body and blood of Christ. *snort*