THE MERE ARTICULATION OF SIGNIFICANCE: Joy Enough: a Memoir, by Sarah McColl
Joy Enough: a Memoir
What you’re probably going to hear about this delicate, intelligent, and conscientiously slight debut memoir—if you haven’t already—is that ultimately it’s a foodie book: the story of a young woman in a bad marriage preparing elaborate dinners for a mother who has fallen ill and who will fail because no meal is medicine enough. Having said that, I won’t spend a lot of time here quoting the numerous gastrophile passages that Cuisinart the heart with a kind of mouthwatering poignancy. That’s all here, but there’s much more to this memoir that will likely be treated only scantly in what is sure to amount to a smorgasbord of praise.
If you’re a cynic, you might be asking a tough question: “She married the wrong guy and her mom died, so what’s the big deal?” Fair enough—so fair, in fact, that this is the thought that preoccupies McColl throughout. Does she really have a story worth telling? Is a story about someone worrying about whether they have a story to tell story enough? Right from the start we’re more in the territory of meta-memoir than memoir.
The true subject of all good memoir is memory itself, and both in a structure of chunky, brief, and sometimes even non-sequential vignettes and in prose that is ragged, choppy, and disjointed to effect, McColl aspires to the uncertain haze of actual recollection. Which is not to say there’s no story here—there is; we haphazardly track the rough year that leads to the divorce and the death. But focusing on story alone for this one would be like scarfing your dinner and skipping dessert. Indeed, a crucial moment rewards the attentive reader with a nugget sweet as nougat.
McColl has been instructed by her mother to create a list of lessons learned from her marriage. The exercise provides unexpected insight:
Events occur in time and space, singular alignments of a moment, a choice, a chance. To search for a lesson in the timeline is to pretend it is, in fact, a line—that life progresses in linear fashion, with its subjects gathering an accumulation of knowledge and wisdom applicable from one occurrence to the next. That is the effort to moralize our lives, as if they were folktales. I’m not convinced. She and I had always been more interested in meaning than plot, but a lesson is the mearest articulation of significance.
This paragraph could be unpacked into a dissertation, but what’s most notable about it, given the context, is that the basic subject matter is closer to quantum mechanics than cooking. And actually, McColl is quite good at what she decries here—sawing off logs from the forest of her experience and milling them down to lumber one can use: axioms. (Okay, maybe an axiom isn’t really a lesson.) For the record, McColl is equally adept at evocative images that protract the moments of her story and land with sudden, crystalline perfection.
Walter Benjamin aside, excellent books don’t always chart wholly new ground. Indeed, sometimes they do the opposite of what I’ve just described—they begin with an unstated axiom—or even a cliché—and gorgeously unfurl from that familiar point of conventional wisdom. The true star of Joy Enough is McColl’s charming mother, who with a kind of dignity and poise that stands at equal remove from the starlet and the soccer mom comes to represent a kind of woman, a type of feminism, that is quickly shrinking in society’s rearview mirror. Her death looms as large as the end of an epoch, and the mother-daughter dynamic here is an allegory of womanhood. I’m tempted to say that that this a book about women—it probably is, in the end—but I’m hesitating for fear that you’ll conclude that it’s a book for women. It’s not. One of the dumbest things about publishing today is the industry’s willingness to pander to the sensibility of middlebrow book clubs: books by women are about women, and for them. That sells McColl, and all of us, short. It’s precisely because Joy Enough is about what women must do and be to survive the ongoing epidemic of toxic masculinity (i.e., Western Civilization) that men should feel compelled to read this book and absorb, yes, its lesson.
But I said there was a conventional, animating thought here. The cliché (“Now my life was the cliché-ridden trash,” McColl meta-writes, moments after the passage quoted above) that gives rise to Joy Enough is the fear that we are all like our parents, or that we will become so. McColl’s case is particularly acute. People around her—even her mother herself—remark on an uncanny similarity, as if some other sort of quantum tomfoolery has produced a generational clone. McColl’s ongoing anxiety over this gives shape to the book’s splatter of shapeless memories.
Why do we fret so? Parents, it would seem, are like some kind of goo or glue, some tacky molasses that we’ve stuck our hand in, and we spend the rest of our lives awkwardly trying to turpentine it away. Even when we’re clean enough to carry on, the sensation lingers, a persistent film like a memory you can’t forget. McColl’s genius, then, is perhaps the recognition that however anxious we might be, the best way to remember a parent is to be true to the sticky moral residue they leave behind.
“I’m not just like my mother,” McColl writes, in conclusion. But by the time you get there, you hope she’s wrong.
J.C. HALLMAN is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.