Monday, June 6, 2011

Leashing the Black Dog: Thoughts on Depression Memoirs

A while back, The New York Times had a strong review of Les Murray's memoir Killing the Black Dog and his poetry collection Taller When Prone, both published by FSG. Meghan O'Rourke, in the review's opening sentence, describes the "visceral smoldering" that is the hallmark of Murray's poetry. Certainly true in his poetry--but that vehemence and power seem absent, as if panned away, in the prose of his memoir.

Perhaps, this comes from the fact that Murray's piece isn't a memoir at all; in an afterword written in 2009, Murray informs the reader that Killing the Black Dog was originally written as a lecture in 1998. The piece has the casualness of an oration, a stream-of-consciousness flow that seems more fitting to a speech than a memoir. The text's long, rambling paragraphs contribute to this sensation and flood us with surface-level accounts of the author's psychological and familial troubles.

I don't protest the fragmentation of the narrative--I imagine that, for most folks who have struggled with a mental illness, the worst depressive episodes feel frozen in time, and then memory becomes a desperate jumble to scrapple together some order, some unifying logic to life. It's canning the lecture as a memoir and then appending the 25 "Black Dog Poems" that seems a disservice to the reader. The book--at a meager 84 pages (not including the indices)--needed about another fifty pages to explore the subject matter.

The poems draw from and hearken back to the episodes in the memoir, but the memoir needs to be developed beyond the lecture script and into the memoir. The memoir tells us, flatly, many of the traumatic events, without dramatizing them or analyzing them. His mother's death, for instance, comes to us in such vague approaches as this: "In facing my personal inner history, I had to look at some dark stuff. I had to remember what had felt like a growing dislike of me on the part of my poor mother, as her miscarriages ate her happiness away, and to recall a nightmare sense on my part [...]" (19). The afterword to the memoir attempts to provide the expansion, but it seems--to this reader--to be too little, too late.

O'Rourke's contention--"Now comes a book that offers a powerfully candid view of Murray’s struggles with depression — one that will speak even to readers unfamiliar with his work"--also seems a bit off, since we need the poems (and ergo, familiarizing ourselves with Murray's work) to feel the full impact of Murray's narrative. Best not to let the horse run off without the cart, methinks.

William Styron's Darkness Visible continues to be the standout depression memoir, though Murray's piece can be read as an interesting complement, as the two books are part of the same dialogue. (At one juncture, Murray charges that certain aspects of Styron's book are too facile, but Murray's book would need some expansion to further that claim.)

So pardon the rough review--Murray has assembled his tragic story, and the interplay between the lecture and the poems is an ambitious formal choice. The lecture portion of the book just requires something more--that stylistic, vocal difference between a talk and a confession.


Post a Comment