A Temperamental Education

Porochista Khakpour in Bookforum:

Book “IF YOU CANNOT GET RID OF the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” goes the only George Bernard Shaw quote I’ve ever bothered to fling around. Its best use may be for describing Alison C. Rose’s 2004 memoir, Better Than Sane: Tales from a Dangling Girl, where family—including, but not limited to, actual blood relatives—is a sort of game, and there is frankly little choice but to dance. The impossibly resilient, delightfully lunatic Rose was one of the less buzzed-about writers of William Shawn’s sunset years at the New Yorker—a bit by her own design, we come to realize in these pages. Better Than Sane is the most radical anti-memoir I’ve read: no answers, no questions even, but instead a sort of anti-tribute to the art of finding one’s people, or thriving in the failure to do so. We begin with Rose’s real family: Here is the brash psychiatrist father who threatens to have her committed, who calls all the women in the family a variation of “Babs” (no clues about why); a detached problem mother with an Oriental-object fetish who purrs, “Miss Jones, I presume,” when her daughters are at the door, a joke the sisters don’t get (neither do we). Everyone crushes on everyone else—boundaries? why?—mother’s friends on father, mother on sister’s boyfriends, sister’s boyfriends on Rose, Rose on them all. It somehow makes sense, then, that Rose’s first friendships come in the form of three mops (literally) and colored pencils (also literally).

Objects are safe, whereas humans are not, and the only thing that tethers Rose to her family is a desire for knowledge: “There was a total education right there in our house if anybody wanted it. Largely, this education consisted of men . . . and books.” And this paves the way for the central obsessions of the memoir: As she says, her father “was a bully and a tyrant and some kind of handsome star and completely depressed and droll. It stands to some kind of reason, then, that I might think a perfect boyfriend was a bully and tyrant and some kind of handsome star and completely depressed and droll.” Enter Harold Brodkey and George W. S. Trow, each embodying every NYC lit kid’s holy trinity of mentor, friend, and lover.

More here.