Mothers of Invention

Landslide: True Stories BY Minna Proctor. Catapult. Paperback, 160 pages. $16.

The cover of Landslide: True Stories

“Creating a narrative is a process,” announces Minna Zallman Proctor in “Folie à deux,” the first piece in Landslide: True Stories. This is the kind of silly, self-serious claim about autobiographical writing that would annoy me if it were not delivered with a heavy dose of irony, which, coming from Proctor, it most certainly is. Each of the stories in Landslide is a defiant and gleeful riposte to those who would dare treat narrative as a “process”: the humorless autobiographers and analysts who link sad memory to sad memory in what sometimes feels like a competitive bid for pathos without comprehension. Proctor prefers to laugh rather than cry at the wreckage of life—the dissolution of her marriage, the death of her mother—but hers is not the cruel laughter of the nihilist. Rather, it is filled with wonder, with love and patience, and, above all, with faith that one can still find something beautiful among the ruins.

“Folie à deux” recalls Proctor’s visit to an elegant and unimaginative therapist who asks her to review her “life story.” In response, Proctor produces a weepy memory of her high school graduation ceremony—an event of no great significance, she insists, except for the fact that no one in her family, not even her mother, bothered to attend, leaving Proctor red-robed, barefoot, and alone in the school parking lot, fenced in by other people’s spectacular displays of love. The story is psychoanalytic catnip, all denial and despair, “a highlight reel, filled with Freudian reductions, one-liners, and clichés,” Proctor observes. Her therapist’s eagerness to fix this memory as the source of all Proctor’s subsequent frustrations—her failed love affairs, her persistent writer’s block—is “like being hit on the back of the head with a five-pound bag of Idaho potatoes.” “My narrative was, by tacit accord, complete enough for therapy to commence,” she writes. From that moment on, she was “the little girl who no one came to see graduate from high school.”

The story, it turns out, is also untrue. Her mother was there, Proctor later learns, hiding so as not to upset her daughter, who, she believed, did not want her to attend. It is one of the many moments of familial misunderstanding that Proctor recounts, a realization that “violently sucked away” the narrative of love and domination she and her therapist have constructed to represent her relationship with her mother. If creating a narrative is a process, Proctor suggests, then it is a process that courts self-deception—alluring, yes, but unsatisfying and even shameful. It can lead you to create and claim a strange, debilitated version of yourself and the people to whom you are bound, and to erect an ugly “architecture of grief and fear” to contain experiences that defy simple interpretation.

Most of the stories in Landslide are on the simplest level about the relationships between mothers and children—first Proctor and her mother, then Proctor and her children, Isaac and Anna. But what really connects them is a basic distrust in the value of telling your life story with the expectation that distinguishing cause from effect will somehow lead to revelation. For Proctor, the stakes are both ethical and aesthetic. When autobiographical writing becomes an extension of, or perhaps a substitute for, the analyst’s couch, the result is the kind of dreary solipsism you usually need to pay another person to put up with. In “Driftwood, Off the Record,” Proctor recalls a sweet, simple ex-boyfriend named Joey, who refers to sex as “choking the chicken” and participates in “emotionally loaded” self-improvement seminars called the Forum, where people work hard on “shaking out ‘the story we tell’ from what actually happened.” This is yet another narrative “process”—“a total mind-sucking sham,” Proctor thinks—and while it leaves Joey feeling like he is “in a good place,” it highlights the formal limits of therapeutic narration: its easy separation of fact from fiction, its neat chronology of events, its moral universe always bending toward resolution.

What is the alternative to narrative as a process? When analysis fails to deliver the revelations that she seeks, Proctor visits an astrologer instead, whose advice she recounts in the story “A Mystic at Heart.” “If I were your shrink,” he says, “I would be trying to cure you, break you of your pathologies. But I’m your astrologer, so instead I commend you on how you’ve resolved things about yourself that you can’t change.” Aligning itself with the astrologer’s more merciful perspective, Landslide offers us what Proctor calls “non-stories”: exquisite constellations of memories that cluster around a single, potentially transformative event—an illness, a death, a disastrous friendship, a failed marriage—but never settle into the classic dramatic arc of complication and unraveling, beginning and end. Lacking any apparent chronology, rife with misunderstanding and irresolution, Proctor’s nonstories collapse past and present, present and future. In its entirety, then, Landslide reads like an act of divination: a way of seeing, and thus accepting, the events one cannot change.

At their funniest, Proctor’s stories turn on her ability to conjure her former and present selves with near-perfect synchroneity. She likes poking fun at young Minna, the kind of writer who knocked around the halls of a useless, if prestigious, MFA program writing “painful and painfully horrible” stories based on her adolescent follies: running away from home, snorting heroin with a guy named Guy. Her humor derives from the distance she measures between the self-seriousness of her youth and her present knowledge that while the situations she faced then, and has faced since, were often quite dire—literally matters of life and death—they were not without their absurdities. Here she is, for instance, recalling the hospitalization of sweet, simple Joey’s mother, whose “brain had shrunk,” her doctors claim, after a lifetime of abusing benzodiazepines and diet pills. “Her brain was knocking around in her skull, like a marble in an empty cat dish. They couldn’t exactly fatten her brain back up but they were hopeful that they could hydrate it a little so that it would get bouncier, more responsive.”

And here she is trying to find the medical laboratory where she will learn whether she has the gene markers for the same type of cancer that killed her mother: “When the nurse calls me back an hour later, I’m in H&M, standing in front of a faceless mannequin garishly dressed in a red Icelandic sweater and Christmas lights trying to figure out if I can pull off fake leather pants if it turns out I do have cancer.”

“Classic dramatic storytelling structure would have a reckoning here, a reversal,” Proctor writes. “I would have an epiphany and emerge from the squalid doctor’s office out into the light, glowing with some higher understanding of life’s insurmountable obstacles.” But the shadow of death rarely illuminates the truth of life—or if it does so, the truth is rarely as bright or as transcendent as we may have wished. In “Stories I Tell My Children,” Proctor remembers taking her mother to a makeup counter at Bloomingdale’s after her first course of chemotherapy, where a saleswoman, upon surveying her mother’s dry skin, begins to speak of “free radicals” and “rogue toxins”—“a snake-oil pitch that, despite her best intentions, sounded asinine to a cancer patient,” Proctor writes. When her mother turns away uninterested, the saleswoman, unaware that Proctor’s mother has cancer, calls out, “Ma’am. . . . You are dehydrated. Did you just lose weight?”

Despite its inclusion in “Stories I Tell My Children,” the visit to the makeup counter is not one of the stories Proctor tells her children. This is not because its irony is cruel or uninstructive, but because it is not so much a story with a beginning, middle, and end as it is a litany of clear and beautiful impressions of her mother occasioned by the saleswoman’s careless misinterpretation of her mother’s skin. Much of it is not told but chanted:

I can repeat my mother’s stories to my children but they will never know how she spoke so quietly as she told them, you had to lean in to hear her. How she held her chin aloft except when she was eating. How the light caught the soft cut of her cheekbones and her tall forehead, her startling blue eyes, so often diverted because she was shy. How she stood straighter and widened her eyes when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in a window. The way she smelled, like water and pencil shavings. How proud she was, how vain, how beautiful, how quiet, how difficult.

Telling it not as a story—an experience to be processed, assimilated, and overcome, relegated to the past—but as pure aesthetic recall preserves some of the immediacy, the intimacy, of the mother and daughter’s relationship. Here are the things Proctor, and only Proctor, can perceive about her mother, and while none of this careful perception will restore her mother’s presence, it can offer a refuge from her absence. Herein lies the best promise of Proctor’s nonstories—what Vladimir Nabokov, himself no stranger to the loss of his loved ones, once called “the refuge of art.” “My mother spent fifteen years not dying, and on that point she was unwavering to the end,” Proctor observes. She intends to honor her mother’s resolve by immortalizing her guilt and her grace, her impetuosity, her pride, her quiet petulance—in short, the whole of her life.

The refuge of art may very well be a realm of self-deception, but it is one with a higher purpose—something akin to a belief in immortality or the afterlife. We do not tell ourselves stories—or nonstories—in order to live; we tell them not to die. We tell them to discover what beauty endures in the absurd and the agonizing. We tell them to offer that beauty to others in the form of a droll metaphor, an unexpected flare of the aesthetic. For this beauty is an expression of faith that something shining might lurk just beyond the heavy curtain of death. Landslide affirms it.

Merve Emre is an assistant professor of English at McGill University and the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and A More Perfect Type, forthcoming from Doubleday in 2018.