Credit Sarah Mazzetti
Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading
By Anne Gisleson
260 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.
Anne Gisleson’s “The Futilitarians” is an entry in the category that Joyce Carol Oates has called the “bibliomemoir,” a first-person narrative that incorporates reading in its structure. The author, a writer and teacher, offers a month-by-month chronicle of a literary discussion group she founded and hosted in her New Orleans home. The attendees are mostly youngish professionals of an artistic or intellectual bent. When she, her husband, Brad, and their friend Chris conceived the project, they had a philosophical approach in mind; the idea was to put an emphasis on ideas. Gisleson wanted to call the group “The Futilitarians,” but the membership settled on “The Existential Crisis Reading Group,” or E.C.R.G..
The reader can hear the ironic inflection; ever since “Annie Hall” it’s been impossible to say “existential crisis” without smirking. Even as the moving spirit of this worthy project, Gisleson had mixed feelings. It “could by turns seem pretentious, goofy or totally necessary.” But the plan to let each member choose a reading each month yielded a lively and eclectic list, from Epicurus to Arthur Koestler to John Cheever to Clarice Lispector. And in a town as intensely convivial as New Orleans, who needed an excuse to talk and drink? (So much drinking! The coffee table was “a forest of bottles.”)
In the first few chapters, Gisleson introduces the members of the group. Aside from a few bold strokes – a man who practices “plumber’s yoga,” a chain-smoking historian who smells of patchouli – they seem rather faintly drawn. We don’t learn much about the lives of these people, and as the months go by, they grow less rather than more distinct. Soon it becomes apparent that the E.C.R.G. is not the main act in this show. It’s Gisleson herself who occupies center stage, and the drama she enacts is the story of her own deep and particular sorrows. One of these is the death of her identical twin sisters, the youngest among eight siblings, beautiful girls whose learning disabilities isolated them in an accomplished family. Within a span of 18 months each hanged herself while under the influence of cocaine and alcohol. Gisleson remembers them with a wondering, deploring tenderness that deepens throughout the book. The other sorrow is the death of her father from leukemia just as the E.C.R.G. is getting underway. He was a prominent lawyer, both secretive and flamboyantly extroverted, a passionate opponent of capital punishment and a family man with a habit of disappearing into dive bars. The twins, so easily forgotten in life, are a painful mystery to Gisleson, and so is her father, whose contradictions come into focus only after his death.
Meanwhile, the E.C.R.G. continues its monthly meetings, considering works by Kingsley Amis (on drinking), Dante, Tolstoy and others. But for Gisleson, the readings function mostly as conduits to the netherworld of her memories. Oddly enough, this world is much larger, richer and more real than the world of the Futilitarians. The dead dwell here, but also the living: Gisleson’s mother is touchingly portrayed, as is Ronald, the death row inmate whom her father counseled for years. And post-Katrina New Orleans itself is an essential component of this world; it lives on the page in pungent detail, with all its disastrous losses and fragile hopes.
The fading away of the E.C.R.G. puzzles the reader. How did it happen? Did the death of Gisleson’s father in the month of the first meeting change the direction of the memoir? This is a serious structural flaw in an otherwise estimable book. Is it a deal-breaker? No, because the memoir that lives inside the bibliomemoir is moving and complete and very much worth reading.
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