First persons

by Michael

Phone Booth by krystian_oI have this morning started reading Just Kids by Patti Smith. I’m not sure I like it. It seems to be written in the soft focus fog of nostalgia, even if that nostalgia is for a hard time – but of course, the effect of the fug is to negate the hardship and make it all a necessary part of a preordained journey towards a successful destiny. I suppose I also don’t believe it. I am cynical enough to suspect personal recollections like this and – to contradict myself somewhat – I do rather like imagining what ‘real’ occurrence might have stimulated the formation and retelling of an explanatory anecdote, if I find the anecdote too neat or too unlikely or too vague.

For example, she recounts making her way to New York: the promised land that would enable her to realise her identity as a creative artist. She gets to the bus station and finds that fares have gone up. She cannot afford the fare. She steps into a phone booth (a “real Clark Kent moment”) and finds an abandoned purse with a locket and $32. She takes the money, leaves the purse and locket and thanks the unaware donor whose money funded her trip and, obviously, paid off in Patti attaining her destiny as well as her destination.

It seems too good to be true. So I have decided that this is a cover story, perhaps grounded in some truth but disguising a darker reality. I say she saw a posh-looking woman in a telephone booth, talking, gesticulating, not paying attention. Seeing the open purse on the shelf, mouth open to provide easy access to the abundance of coins that would be needed to continue the call, our protagonist snatches the purse and pockets the money, running as hard as she can to escape the attentions of the now disconnected caller. Being an ethereal, creative, soulful soul, I can imagine the thief is … not shamed, exactly but perhaps contrite? – within personal limits that allow her to keep the money but want to return the personal possessions – so she later puts the purse back in the phone booth before boarding the bus to New York. The same contrition makes her reinvent the event, creating a story that is less damning, more closely aligned with the character she wishes to be/portray. Repetition of the story makes it become true, and there is no way anyone (least of all, me) can gainsay it.

Now I don’t know why my mind wants to disbelieve the first-hand account and create something equally – perhaps more – far-fetched. I think I want to undermine the self-satisfied feeling of destiny that seems to drive this story. It was ok to take the money because I was on a journey and I couldn’t have made it without the money. It is a pseudo-religious sensation – she might as well claim that God or an angel put the purse there for her to find so that she could fulfil her dreams.

However, as I continued reading, it occurred to me that this might be (part of) the point: a lot of the first section of the book – I have only so far read the first section – is written in a way to set itself up precisely as a sort of hagiographical narrative of Patti and Robert [Mapplethorpe], and the nostalgic fug would be entirely appropriate to the artifice of such a hagiography. This I applaud and positively enjoy. So I do like it after all. If I believe it is intentional.

But I am still interested in the disparity between ‘real’ events and the way we remember them. I believe we build narratives in order to remember events in particular ways, and that these narratives are weak, ie malleable, subject to distortion, conscious or not. The first person narrator is always unreliable in my book.

(I may just have to write ‘my book’ to make this point properly.)