More than enough has been said in the very recent past about the veracity of truthfulness in the literary memoir. I believe in the genre, I believe that the stories we tell about ourselves are always going to be colored by experience and may not stand up to the same scrutiny as a true autobiography would. I find the line between an "autobiographical novel" and a "literary memoir" to be fine and permeable and not necessarily relevant to the transmission of experience. I wish someone had bought James Frey's work as the novel he originally shopped around; it would have saved everyone a lot of time and trouble. The controversy didn't take away from the experience I watched customers have reading and talking about the book.
I approached Saving Angelfish, a new first novel from Los Angeles writer Michele Matheson, the same way I approach anything billed as closely based on the author's life; my only question was, "Do I get any real sense of experience out of the story?" In the case of Matheson's achingly true descent, I more than do. Her novel of addiction, of coming close to bottoming out in the strangely surreal sunny city of angels, rings as true as any memoir I've read. This is a story told by a person that could only have lived it, not in a page-by-verifiable-page kind of living, but in a "my life, my memories, my story" way.
Maxella Gordon is a product of a Hollywood family, not a big-star kind of family with photographers documenting every step down a celebrity's child staircase, but the child of working class Hollywood, people in the industry who work almost anonymously for years acquiring stories and scars along the way. Her mother and father are divorced yet inseparable, united mostly in pain about their daughter's struggle with every kind of drug she can find. Maxilla's mother breakfasts on gin-soaked dried fruit. Maxilla's drug of choice, if choice is the right word, is heroin.
The drug world is a funny place; you find yourself calling people "friend" who's only connection to you is your connection. Maxilla is close to a variety of strange, colorful and ultimately selfish people who are there for her when times are good, but will steal her stash and leave her stranded when times are tight or their own demons rise up. Maxella herself lives in a world stopped mid-plot, always looking for the next route from low to very high. She's guided through this world by a stolen talking Christmas angel, a voice of reason and hope from the glove box, under the seat or in her pocket. Her angel is a perfect narrator for her voyage, tattered yet hopeful, bright yet cheap.
There is no happy ending in Saving Angelfish; there is a hopeful ending, a point at which I could see a change in the path Maxella is heading down. Like Alice, trying every "eat me" and "drink me" she can, looking for her way out of the hole she's in, Maxella has reached a door she has the wherewithal to step through. We hope the character has the power. I'm sure Matheson has found the way.
Galley Slave Galley Watch
Un Lun Dun is China Mieville's first journey into young adult fiction and he has brought with him is usual strangeness, astute politics, eye for the friendly grotesque and, above all, his ability to craft a city unlike any other. His story of pollution gone amok is an ode to the powers of the sidekick and a parable of heroism and teamwork for any and all readers. Due in March, from Bantam.