Sunday, November 1, 2009

american scourge

In the midst of reading Proust, I picked up a quick read from the library, Tweak by Nic Sheff. I recalled hearing Sheff on NPR, along with his father, discussing his memoir, subtitled "Growing up on Methamphetamines." I read the book in one night with mild interest. Although Sheff is an okay writer, poetic at times with an apparently near photographic memory, he lacks perspective and his attempts are often heavy-handed (Sheff names the homeless kid who hooks him up with meth on his first major relapse Destiny, etc etc etc), I didn't really gain any insight or learn anything new about meth addiction from his memoir.

Sheff grew up in privileged circles in San Francisco and L.A. - where every friend is the kid of someone famous and all your liberal parents have houses on the ocean in Point Reyes. Having grown up in L.A. and lived in the Bay Area, I could relate. Sheff's settings were all familiar to me and his characters accurate enough, though sketchy.

The descriptions of the mass quantities of drugs Sheff was putting into his body were kind of mind boggling. Lately I've been thinking about how tiny our bodies really are - not much more than a torso filled with vital organs. I can't imagine shooting meth and coke hour after hour, day after day, for months straight. While Sheff does a pretty good job describing the mutilation of his body over time, he offered little insight into the mind of an addict.

The second half of the book delves into his 12 step recovery, which I sped-read with little to no interest, until he relapses again with his girlfriend Zelda and eventually ends up in a 3 month rehab program where he confronts his past as a co-dependent tweaker and street prostitute, and then (supposedly) sobers up for good. In one section near the end of the book Sheff describes a therapy session using dolls. His mom is a plastic alligator, his dad a teddy bear, his step-dad a T-rex. "After I finish," Sheff writes, "people in the group are encouraged to point out what they notice regarding color similarities and placement -- whatever. This one girl with a shaved head notices that I've used the same animal to represent Zelda and my mom. They are also lying in the same position. Someone else points out that they are even the same color. It is just a coincidence, but it does make me think." In the end, I guess I had a hard time buying his sunshine-lite hopes for the future, given the superficial self-awareness Sheff only seems capable of. I hope for the best for him.

On topic, I saw a crappy documentary, "American Meth," recently, which offered even less insight on the subject than Sheff's book. Near the end of the film, though, for about 15 minutes the documentary inexplicably strays from straight interviews and archival footage to follow a couple of tweakers living in a trailer with their three kids. As mom and dad get high, pass out, and scream at each other, their two year old daughter fends for herself. There is a haunting scene in which the two year old shuffles through the pitch black, pre-dawn trailer in search of food. The images reminded me of the scene in ET when a drunken ET waddles to the fridge in search of beer or Reeses Pieces. The refrigerator door opens, silhouetting this little baby wearing nothing but a sagging diaper, her hair a giant mass of tangles and mats. Holding her empty baby bottle in one hand, she reaches in the fridge and clumsily lugs a heavy, two gallon jug of milk from the shelf. If she doesn't fill her own bottle, the narrator tells us, no one will. Several hours later, her parents still passed out, the toddler has scavenged a half eaten bag of microwave popcorn out of the garbage for breakfast. Later still, dirt perpetually smeared across her cheeks and over her distended stomach, the baby girl tiptoes over some precariously stacked sofa cushions as her parents scream at each other in the background. Suddenly she leaps off the top of the cushions, she's airborne, and then she lands on a broken armchair with a happy grin.

This little toddler, all alone in a crowded meth shack, but surviving and even having some fun, is an amazing example of how resilient children can be.

She appears at the end of this trailer, at -0.08 seconds.

a dream more lucid

For me, in the following passage Proust perfectly describes the pleasure of reading, how a novel enables its reader to transcend her own ordinary existence, to transcend time. Unwittingly, or wittingly?, he captures here the essence of what it has been like to read In Search of Lost Time (life imitating art imitating life) and what, as writers and readers, we aspire to achieve.

After this central belief, which moved incessantly during my reading from inside to outside, toward the discovery of the truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for those afternoons contained more dramatic events than does, often, an entire lifetime. These were the events taking place in the book I was reading; it is true that the people affected by them were not "real," as Fran├žoise said. But all the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or the misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingeniousness of that first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image being the only essential element, the simplification that would consist in purely and simply abolishing real people would be a decisive improvement. A large part perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift. If a calamity should strike him, it is only in a small part of the total notion we have of him that we will be able to be moved by this; even more, it is only in a part of the total notion he has of himself that he will be able to be moved himself. The novelist's happy discovery was to have the idea of replacing these parts, impenetrable to the soul, by an equal quantity of immaterial part, that is to say, parts which our soul can assimilate. What does it matter thenceforth if the actions and the emotions of this new order of creatures seem to us true, since we have made them ours, since it is within us that they occur, that they hold within their control, as we feverishly turn the pages of the book, the rapidity of our breathing and the intensity of our gaze. And once the novelist has put us in that state, in which, as in all purely internal states, every emotion is multiplied tenfold, in which his book will disturb us as might a dream but a dream more lucid than those we have while sleeping and whose memory will last longer, then see how he provokes in us within one hour all possible happinesses and all possible unhappinesses just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them (thus our heart changes, in life, and it is the worst pain; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality it changes, as certain natural phenomena occur, slowly enough so that, if we are able to observe successively each of its different states, in return we are spared the actual sensation of change).

...For even if we have the sensation of being always surrounded by our own soul, it is not as though by a perpetual prison: rather, we are in some sense borne along with it in a perpetual leap to go beyond it, to reach the outside, with a sort of discouragement as we hear around us always that same resonance, which is not an echo from outside but the resounding of an internal vibration.