August 12, 2008

Book review: "Running with Scissors" and "A Wolf at the Table," by Augusten Burroughs

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Running with Scissors (2002)
By Augusten Burroughs
Picador / ISBN: 978-0-312-42227-X

A Wolf at the Table (2008)
By Augusten Burroughs
St Martins Press / ISBN: 978-0-312-34202-9

I've mentioned here regularly the entire idea of there being an "underground-arts canon;" that is, that just like the academic community, what we call the modern cutting-edge arts has now been around long enough (arguably since the early 1900s) that we can now say, "If you want to consider yourself well-versed on the subject, you need to make sure to read this person and this person and this person." This is a hugely important subject among intellectuals, after all, because that's what intellectualism is mostly based on in the first place; of that entire group of deep thinkers coming together and collectively deciding what is most important to their group, of what most directly and profoundly helps any intelligent person understand what that group is all about. And thus in the last year and a half have I been desperately trying to fill in the holes of such a canon in my own life; for those who don't know, see, I spent the 15 years before opening CCLaP not as an academe but as an actual working artist, so mostly spent those years actually photographing and writing instead of reading and studying. It's important that I fill in these intellectual gaps now, precisely because I am trying to be a full-time arts critic these days, because it matters with artistic criticism just how much you know about the subject; and thus it is that I'm constantly having to admit these days to a woeful lack of exposure to this artist or that, as I finally make my way through the first of their projects and talk about them here at the site.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to gay Generation X memoirist Augusten Burroughs; because Burroughs is precisely one of these shining lights of the so-called "contemporary canon," according to his fans, one of those "must-read" authors you absolutely need to be familiar with, in order to understand the contemporary underground arts in any kind of sophisticated way whatsoever. His work has previously always simply eluded my attention, for whatever reason; before last week, not only had I never read any of his books, I hadn't even seen the slick high-budget 2006 Hollywood adaptation that was made of his first bestseller, the horrifically comedic / comedically horrific coming-of-age tale Running with Scissors, much less the four other freaking personal memoirs written since or the absurdist novel written before. And whether you like him or hate him, the simple fact is that my non-knowledge of his work is a weakness for me as a critic and book reviewer; there are simply so many people familiar with his books by now, so many references made in other literary reviews to his manuscripts, that any decent reporter of the underground needs to make sure they're familiar with him, for no other reason than so they're on the same page as other lovers of the underground.

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

A Wolf at the Table, by Augusten Burroughs

And it's all this, of course, that made it even such a bigger shock than normal when I actually sat down and read two of Burroughs' memoirs, his oldest (the aforementioned Scissors from 2002) and newest (A Wolf at the Table, from 2008), and realized the following: "Oh my God, Augusten Burroughs' memoirs f-cking suck." How can this be?, any intelligent person will ask at that moment -- how can it be that these books have had so much praise heaped on them over the years, when they turn out to be such weak excuses for compelling literature? Has there been...what, a massive hypnotic spell placed over all the people who gush and gush about the stirring prose and fascinating storylines found within? Has the collective lack of education and anti-intellectual stirrings of Neocon America over the last thirty years finally hit its tipping point, with the American populace simply no longer able to distinguish good books from bad ones? Is that what happened? Or is it that Burroughs got in during the last gasp of an artistic movement that we now consider trite and passe, exactly the "Generation X" house-of-cards I mentioned earlier, and thus suffers the dated wrath of a veteran like Douglas Coupland but at a fraction of the time?

Because let's make no mistake -- when the snotty pop-culture historians of the future think back to these days, and specifically the whole New Age middle-class suburban Oprah Hillary "It Takes A Village" politically-correct pink-ribbon crowd, they will think of Augusten Burroughs. Because that's basically what both of these books are, through and through, from the first page to ostensibly the last; they are whiny, victim-oriented, badly-written, semi-made-up so-called "true stories" about just how bad poor little Augusten has had it his whole whimsically funny life, of how every terrible thing that's ever happened to him is everyone else's fault but his own, and how by the way all those bad things just happened to be poetically poignant and contained the exact kind of dialogue that makes middle-aged suburban Oprah-worshipping pink-ribbon-wearing New Age soccer moms swoon. Nice coincidence, that!

And in fact, that brings up one of the first and ultimately biggest problems I encountered with Burroughs' work, when I tried to make my way through it for the first time last week; that it simply comes off as untrue, as made-up, not exactly a lie under the legal definition of the term, but definitely "cutsied up" so bad that it might as well be a fictional story. Because, see, for those who don't know, both of the books under review today supposedly cover Burroughs' early childhood among dysfunctional hippies in the "let it all hang out" 1970s, a series of vignettes that he actually writes from the mindset and viewpoint of that particular age; so in other words, if he's recalling an event from when he was five years old, he actually writes it as a five-year-old would supposedly see it. And in that manner, Burroughs essentially gets to have his cake and eat it too; he gets to say outrageously offensive things about all the real people around him at that time in his life, absurdly unprovable things that rely as much on magical realism as...you know, realism, while still having the convenient James-Frey Oprahesque New-Age excuse of, "I'm a writer, and I'm paid to write about how something felt. And this is how these events felt to me. And it doesn't matter if what I say is exactly true or not, not from a factual standpoint, because they are factual accounts of how I felt at that moment, or perhaps how I felt thirty years later when looking back on it through the filter of a mainstream publishing contract and looming deadline."

I think it's very telling, for example, that his own parents freaking sued him for defamation when Scissors came out*, but that this hasn't stopped any of these publishing companies from continuing to put out, put out, put out yet another semi-crap childhood memoir and yet another semi-crap childhood memoir by him. Because simply, we live in an age where a huge majority of the American public can no longer distinguish fact from fiction -- an age where over 50 percent of all Americans believe that The DaVinci Code is a true story, an age where over 50 percent of all Americans believe that The Secret is a true story. And that's because our country's educational system has been steadily crumbling since the end of World War Two, since the moment the US first started embracing the military-industrial complex, and first started diverting more and more of our national budget away from everything else and towards the military. No one gets a decent education in the United States anymore, critics claim, not unless they seek one out as an adult as the theory goes; and therefore most Americans are no longer even educated enough to understand the difference between true and made-up, the difference between science and "Intelligent Design" (i.e. "Creationism" with a new name), the difference between "memoir" and "sh-t I pulled out of my ass that sounds all tragic and crap, and that no one can exactly either prove or disprove."

And that's why earlier, I said that I was only guessing at what was the "ostensible" endings of these books; because to admit the absolute truth, I only made it about halfway through Running With Scissors before finally giving up, and couldn't even get thirty pages into A Wolf at the Table without doing the same. And seriously, Mr. Burroughs, if you just happen to ever come across this review -- I understand that writers with unique voices are easy to parody, precisely because they have unique voices, but do you really have to make it so damn tempting as well?

"Me. Pre-natal. What are these fleshy jail-cell walls that hold me in so tightly? Probably the result of my mother, of course, the cocktail-swilling fool. I wish to yell at her, wish to express my disgust at her smothering yet cold presence. But then I realize -- Oh yes, that's right, I'm a fetus. I'm not yet capable of advanced thought or human speech. So why is it that I'm already so eerily attracted to the Six Million Dollar Man?"

UGH. It's writers like Augusten Burroughs that makes me want to turn my entire back on Generation X in general, despite me actually being a member of Generation X; it's books like these that makes me understand why kids currently in their twenties hate me and my friends so much, of why they feel the desire to angrily vomit whenever the subjects of tattoos or Pearl Jam are brought up. I have a feeling that history will look on Burroughs a little more kindly, as simply a result of what our entire times encouraged; as someone, though, who's kind of had his fill for now of that moment of history, may I please be the first one to stand up in public and urge you to skip over the ouevre of Augusten Burroughs. Ten years from now, he will be retro and cute, the sign of a time that has now passed; but right now, he's mostly maddening and infuriating, the exact poster boy for why you should no longer trust anyone over the age of forty. It was a surprise, a real surprise, to learn about this otherwise highly respected author; a reminder that nothing is ever as it first seems when it comes to the underground arts, which of course is why at the cusp of forty myself I still find it so important to listen to the underground arts, to listen to what all those angry drunken twenty-year-olds have to say. I'm sure that Burroughs will eventually be seen as important; I'm just not sure at this point whether he should be considered relevant, especially at this particular moment in artistic history. Proper caution is advised with all of his books.

Out of 10: 1.9

Read even more about Running with Scissors: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about A Wolf at the Table: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And for the sake of legality, let me inform you that the family defamation suit mentioned earlier was settled privately out of court earlier this year; an undisclosed amount of money was exchanged between child and parents as a result, and Burroughs agreed to call the manuscript in the future simply a "book" instead of a "memoir."

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:47 PM, August 12, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |