Friday, November 02, 2012

Women on the Outside: Two Memoirs

Pretty much by accident, I happened to read these two books back-to-back recently: two memoirs by women of their lives tangentially connected to the arts, both about their youth and ideals and how those ran into the actual circumstances of life. One is from a woman who worked as a receptionist for a classy magazine for a long time after wanting to write; the other from a woman who wanted to be a rock star and spent a number of years not quite getting there. One is a highly lauded bestseller; the other is little-known and obscure.

One of these books is smart and incisive and clear-eyed; the other is gauzy and vague and platitudinous. And I think you've probably been around the block enough to have figured out which is which.

Janet Groth spent over twenty years as the receptionist of the eighteenth floor of The New Yorker's offices -- "the writers' floor," she was told when she was hired. Those years were 1957 to 1978, and twenty more years later -- after an entire second career as an academic that clearly progressed more satisfactorily than did the New Yorker gig -- she wrote The Receptionist about those years, to join that long shelf of books about the fabled New Yorker offices. One would assume that a book based on twenty years would be filled with juicy, interesting stories of the writers she worked with (or at least in front of), but one would be mistaken: The Receptionist only devotes a few introductory chapters to the famous denizens of that eighteenth floor (all of whom were amazingly nice and kind and special) in her early years, and then instead devotes the bulk of its space to a look at the young Groth's neurotic love-life. (And that could have been an engrossing book: she was on the front lines of the sexual revolution, as a young professional woman from the sticks in big bad New York in the high Mad Men years.)

The Receptionist is a slim book, but don't let that fool you: it's even slighter than it looks. It masquerades as an insider's look at the New Yorker in its golden years under William Shawn, but Groth was never an insider -- in fact, the buried message of The Receptionist, the one Groth doesn't seem to have realized herself, is that she remained on the outside that entire time, ushering people into offices but then leaving herself for a seat by the elevator. (And that book, had she realized it, could also have been something really worth reading.) Though, perhaps, I might be too hard on Groth: it's possible that she wrote a passionate, deeply felt, wart-and-all look at the men of the '50s and '60s New Yorker, and that the folks at Algonquin edited that all out, for fear of lawsuit or unpleasantness. That's very unlikely, though: Groth's writing in The Receptionist shows an essential timidity (yes, the very thing that American society tried its hardest to inculcate in her entire generation, but that's an explanation, not an excuse) and instinctive turning away from any kind of conflict, so I very much doubt that version of The Receptionist ever did, or could, exist.

Groth simply doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, or reputation, so The Receptionist is maddeningly non-specific, as she refuses to even name the boyfriends she had fifty years ago for fear something utterly unspecified might happen. Groth writes, in her early chapters, about how a few New Yorker types pursued her -- she only includes the ones that did so gracefully and as gentlemen, like John Berryman and Joe Mitchell, leaving the reader to wonder if there were any real wolves on the premises -- without ever quite making the connection to why they did so: she was blonde and young and (apparently) available. She never makes the case that they liked her for her she's too busy talking about what geniuses they all were. But surely there must have been more steel in the twenty-something Groth than she tells us, because, according to her, she didn't succumb to the advances of any of those eighteenth-floor geniuses, over a course of many years and what must have been many (genteel, gentlemanly) attempts to get into her pants.

She did, though, succumb to the advances of others, starting with a cartoonist she calls "Evan Simm" and leading through a small group of mostly young men over the next few years -- and this makes up the bulk of the book, the story of how one young woman went from thinking she'd marry the first man she slept with, to thinking it would be the second, to finally realizing (a few years later) that her relationships with men were not healthy. But Groth tells us this -- and tells it to us, too often, at secondhand or by hiding the names of her boyfriends -- rather than making it immediate and real. Maybe she's just too far from that mixed-up twentyish girl to empathize with her anymore, but the young Janet Groth is unknowable in The Receptionist, and the older Groth not much better: it's never clear why she does any of the things she does (or doesn't do), or even that Groth realizes that she's being that opaque.

So The Receptionist combines a tepid whitewashed look at the New Yorker fifty years ago with a bland veiled story of one woman's sexual coming of age in the same era (minus the actual coming of age and learning anything) into one mediocre package. It is a bestseller, but, then, I've already said "mediocre" once, so I'm repeating myself.

Alina Simone isn't famous. She possibly never will be famous. She has never worked for people that are famous. (Though her childhood best friend is Amanda Palmer, who became exactly the kind of rock star that Simone burns to become.) She has, however, been a recording and touring musician -- not as successful as she'd like, but working at what she wants to do -- for the past decade, releasing three full-length records. She might not have done exactly what she wanted to do, but she's nobody's receptionist. And, last year, a collection of autobiographical essays -- it's not quite a single narrative, though the book does have an arc as a whole -- called You Must Go and Win was released, at about the same time as her most recent record, Make Your Own Danger.

And, in sixteen months, You Must Go and Win has sold about 13% of what The Receptionist has done in four. (Who says that rock 'n roll is more popular than the written word?) Once again, there is no justice in the world.

Simone is smart, authentic and entirely honest -- a good part of You Must Go and Win is taken up with her struggles with her own dreams. How does she know what she really wants? Does she want what she really wants? But even more of You Must Go and Win is concerned with the essential meat of the memoir: who am I? where did I come from? how did I end up here?

And when "here" is a flea-infested (and tiny) sublet in Brooklyn, there's an immediate tension there. Even better, "where did I come from" has an equally interesting, specific story: Simone was born in Kharkov, which is currently in Ukrane but was part of the Soviet Union when her parents got permission to leave. (She's a little older than you might expect, from a would-be rock star, and her voice is all the better and richer for it.)

You Must Go and Win is partially about rock 'n' roll, and about dreams thereof, but it's just as much about Russia and Ukrane and weird parts of the world, about punk rock in the old Soviet Union and Simone's love for the dead punk icon Yanka Dyagileva, about her fears and loves and the non-profit day job that kept sending her to Siberia, about traveling the country with Amanda Fucking Palmer, about the Russian Orthodox church and the heretical Doukhbors. Simone is an interesting person, with passions for odd bits of intellectual and social history, depressive in that old Russian way, but always clear about who she is and what she can do. And she writes with the energy of punk rock and the intellectual intricacy of an Orthodox icon.

I read You Must Go and Win because I knew Simone's music, but that's completely unnecessary. She's a great chronicler of her own life, and has lived enough interesting moments to fill many more books like this. This is the book you should be reading.

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