Jolly Lad, John Doran (Strange Attractor, 2015)
An Encyclopadeia of Myself, Jonathan Meades (Fourth Estate, 2015)
The autobiographer has something in common with Narcissus although not if the comparison only reduces the writer to being an egoist in love with the story of his own life. Before Narcissus sees himself in a pool he is ardently solicited by the nymph Echo but he rejects her advances and she wastes away in grief until only her voice lives on. When, later, Narcissus sees himself reflected in the water his anguish, like Echo’s, resides in not being able to embrace what is so dearly desired. He dips his arms in the water, reaching for the neck he sees, but cannot touch for himself. Consumed by his own grief, Narcissus dies and mourners find only a flower by the water’s edge. It’s a potently suggestive myth, inlaid with parallels: repetition as representation – verbal in one case, visual in the other; yearning for something out of reach; failure to reciprocate desire leading to death.
Unlike the autobiographer who will be worth reading, Narcissus fails to register a difference between his present self and an image that would represent him. What he sees is not his own self but an other that reflects his self; he speaks and sees his lips moving in the water but the image doesn’t speak to him although it is a visible and spatial repetition of his voice. Like a letter without an address, his desire returns undelivered to its sender. Derrida’s opposition that pits a writing that is always deceased and deficient against the full presence of the living voice, the script versus the body, is part of the constellation that makes up the author as a selfhood presenting itself. Writing your own life retrospectively attempts to create the self’s authentic voice but, like the image Narcissus beholds in the clear water of the pool, it cannot provide what is being sought. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the narrator addresses Narcissus: ‘What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own.’ Autobiographies can be calibrated according to their degree of success in acknowledging the inherent failure in trying to reach what has passed, as if an echo could somehow be the real thing. As the White Queen paradoxically observes, ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’. John Doran in Jolly Lad has a knotty problem that compounds this immanent impasse: can he bear to look at his previous existence? He writes of a ghastly past that he desperately needs to leave behind but achieving this entails asking himself what kind of self will take its place.
Doran’s childhood was marked by the kind of material deprivation that characterized many working-class families around Liverpool in the 1970s and cannot be simply pointed to as an explanation for his troubled self. His father, reduced to working short hours and a pinched income, had little sympathy with John’s manic attraction to pop music and only in adulthood is his son able to contextualise his father’s moroseness and hatred of U2:
Of course, this was another example of capitalism’s great cloaking mechanism in full effect. Blaming expensive hat wearing stadium rock divots for your lot in life is no less unreasonable than blaming immigrants, the police, the middle classes, those on the dole, claimants of sickness benefit, your neighbour who has a better car than you, those on your shop floor who have better shift patterns than you, the secretary you suspect to be fucking someone else in middle management, the students who are only working in your office over the summer break, black people, Asian people, Europeans, people from Wigan, people from Manchester, people from London, people from Yorkshire, people from the other, better side of Warrington Road…
(True, it might have been no less unreasonable than blaming others but, let’s be fair, some mea culpa should be expressed by son to prescient father for identifying U2 as bellends.)