Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Amy Kurzweil's Flying Couch

In her memoir debut Flying Couch, Amy Kurzweil draws from so many sources and inspirations for her book that her own authorial voice frequently got lost. It's part Maus, part We Are On Our Own, part Are You My Mother?, a smidgen of How To Understand Israel In Thirty Days or less and another half-dozen or so influences, In a book that's supposed to be about three generations of Jewish women, the only woman whose story really rang out was that of Kurzweil's grandmother, Lily, whom she called Bubbe. Kurzweil is nothing if not ambitious. She set out to address cross-generational themes of identity as women, as Jewish people, and as citizens with ties to a number of different places. The best segments of the book echo Maus in that Kurzweil set out to tell her grandmother's stories, a process which gave her grandmother the validation she desperately craved. For years, she had kept stories of how she survived the Holocaust in Poland mostly to herself, in part because her daughter (Kurzweil's mother) wasn't ready to hear them and partly because of the simple effect of trauma. She wanted to move on. As she grew older and saw that the stories were starting to be forgotten, that gave her the impetus to make herself heard.

That's an interesting contrast to Maus, where Art Spiegelman had to more-or-less pry the concentration camp stories out of his father, Vladek. Both books reveal a kind of rawness in the parent-child relationship, and a good portion of Maus is certainly about how difficult that relationship was for Spiegelman. In Flying Couch, young Amy was a willing audience for her grandmother, both as a child and adult. Her grandmother always did the talking, something with annoyed her mother but something that Amy found endearing, which is why her story is told in such a straightforward manner. Of course, and this puts closer to Katin's book, Kurzweil's grandmother never went to a concentration camp. This is not to say that she didn't have a harrowing existence for several years, but the level of trauma and suffering was far less than those who managed to survive the camps. Katin's book similarly told the story of a woman and her young daughter (Katin) who managed to survive on their wits and avoid the camps. 

Bubbe is portrayed as delightful, inspiring, infuriating, overbearing and a singular but kind force. Kurzweil does a fine job of bringing her to life, eccentricities and all. Where this book falters in terms of the writing is how Kurzweil depicted her mother and how Kurzweil depicted herself. Throughout the book, she describes herself as drifting and detached, simultaneously pulled in by and feeling compelled to move away from her family. While I respect the honesty of this depiction, it makes for a weak center of the book. Other than the fact that she's intelligent and has anxiety, the reader never gets a sense as to Kurzweil is. Even during the one section of the book that really focuses on her, which was her Birthright trip to Israel, all we got was a surface account of the experience. She talked about and around the problems she had with Israel and the self-paralysis that came with reading countless books about the subject, but it was one more Kurzweil as a drifting figure who was being pulled by all sorts of influences.

To her credit, there's a strong awareness of how she's being pulled by faith, ideology and science in different directions, and she refused to provide an answer as to how these things might be integrated. For her, there was no specific answer, which may very well have led to her drifting so much. The problem is that in terms of storytelling, that sense of drifting is repeated a number of times throughout its often repetitive 300 pages. With regard to her mother, it's funny that Kurzweil depicts her reading an earlier version of this book (a college thesis) and critiquing how she was portrayed--that she was more than just a therapist. Unfortunately, this is exactly how her mom is shown: as a distant, arrogant, know-it-all who is constantly nagging her daughter about her future. She's the stereotypical therapist who can't see her own problems and how they affect others. While there is certainly affection and respect in their relationship, there was too much unresolved for this to be considered in any way a story about her mother beyond Kurzweil's own narrow understanding and relationship with her. Kurzweil is simply too close to the situation to be able to tell the story with any degree of objectivity, and it seems clear that she was not very interested in trying very hard to do it.

So the narrative was a mess, though it was at least an interesting mess. Kurzweil was all over the place, frequently jumping back and forth in time even as there was a slow journey through Kurzweil's college years and beyond. The real problem with the book is that Kurzweil's chops as a draftswoman were simply not up to par for this kind of story. If I'm correct, she drew most or all of the story on a computer, and it shows. Her figurework is indistinct, her use of perspective often produced strange effects for no discernible reason and her constant use of greyscaling seemed to be in an effort to cover up her weak line, difficulty working with negative space and general difficulty working in a naturalistic style. This is unfortunate, because her open page format was often quite clever, especially when she'd superimpose images on maps and floorplans or compare life events to boardgames. There are a lot of whimsical sequences that involve page composition that don't quite work because, above all else, her faces are not distinct and expressive enough to carry the story. They often look overworked, as she sometimes adds lines just to add them, and the greyscaling does her no favors at all in this regard. If Kurzweil had more fully embraced the grotesque and scribbly qualities of her work like another woman name-checked, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, then I think the book might have been different. But it was obvious in terms of the poses she drew that she thought she was not working in that tradition.  Kurzweil went in too many different directions all at once, inspired by so many different works that she openly name-checks, and the result was a memoir that was neither fish nor fowl. It didn't have a strong authorial voice, nor did it show appropriate storytelling restraint at other times. It was a mess, but a worthwhile mess, to be sure, one that shows an artist who wanted to make a masterpiece right out of the gate but who couldn't quite get things to hold together. I'd love to see her attempt a follow-up to this book sometime in the future, when she both has had the time to continue to hone her craft and has a little more distance and perspective with regard to both herself and her own mother.

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