by Dorin Schumacher
234 pp., $18.00
Glossy Frenetic Family Dysfunction
Equal parts chilling and nostalgic, Dorin Schumacher’s memoir, Gatsby’s Child, is one of those memoirs that lingers on even after all reading has ceased. To put it simply, it haunts—in a similar vein that our young protagonist seems to be haunted by the legacy of her famed grandmother—silent film star, Helen Gardner.
With its heady mix of emotional abuse and family dysfunction,
Schumacher conjures up a childhood which shares the same glossy, frenetic, roaring 20s gleam as Fitzgerald’s own novel, The Great Gatsby. However, in keeping with the modern memoir, she subverts these glamorous themes, doing away with any and all Jordan Bakers and the calm sophistication that they bring. Schumacher turns tropes on their head, opening them up, and giving readers a coming-of-age story that is—for lack of a better word—nightmarish, more in keeping with Fitzgerald’s doomed and drunk Myrtle Wilson, if you will.
Forget Nick Carraway and the dreamy trappings of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, and instead look to the more recent Baz Luhrmann version of the Fitzgerald novel. It is here, within the bright hard glare of Luhrmann’s trademark over-the-top cinematography and endless sensual thumping of a Jazz Age Jay-Z, where Schumacher’s memoir belongs. Here, the reader is first introduced to the chaos and noise of childhood abuse by Schumacher’s charismatically hard-partying and alcoholic parents, who do very little in shielding a young, sensitive, and thoroughly confused Schumacher from the dark aspects of the adult world and addiction. There is sex, there is drink, there is racism, there is stigma, and there is—to borrow a catchphrase from another beloved literary novel—a sense of phoniness to it all. Phony in the fact that her father playacts through his entire life, mostly eschewing, and in some cases even downright lying, about his Jewish ethnicity. There is phoniness, too, in her parents’ failed marriage, and the fact that they stayed together mostly for convenience and to undercut gossip. Finally, there is phoniness in the idea of a Hollywood family legacy, and the secret sexual life her famous actress grandmother seems to have led.
In one instance, Schumacher is surprised and horrified when she begins her period. Instead of the comfort and guidance she (and any young woman for that matter) craves and needs during such a life-changing event, her mother manages to sully the experience by implying something dirty and inappropriately sexual. For there is no bloom in this young woman’s world, only blood. Later, Schumacher is also faced with another Bildungsroman trope and trouble: her identity—ethnic, sexual, and emotional. As a blonde hair, blue-eyed young woman who is half Jewish on her father’s side, she’s forced to confront both aspects of herself: the Jewish and the Gentile. This is made even more confusing by her obviously Aryan looks and Hollywood film star ancestry.
Schumacher doesn’t shy away from painting disturbing and flawed portraits of herself as well as her relatives. In fact, she’s rather relentless in this approach. There is a gutsiness to her language that’s admirable and incomprehensibly brave. The clarity and frankness of her characterizations mostly saves her narrative from coming across as self indulgent or self pitying. This is no vanity project: it’s a violent, personal call-to-arms, brought about by the aggressiveness with which Schumacher remembers. It’s as if she dials up the exposure settings on memory itself.
She treats both big and small instances equally, but because of this scrupulous approach, the chapters, on occasion, have a slight clutter to them. It is one thing after another, a rabid assortment of the traumatic and the confusing, which in its own way emulates the grim constancy of life. But a few more edits, a bit more paring down of chapter length and bulk, would have served her narrative well, while also allowing the reader to come up for air every once in a while.
This is an important aspect of memoir. The genre is an overwhelming one, both for writer and reader. Memoir seeks to explore the deep intimacy of another’s mind almost entirely through remembering, hindsight, and semi-objective commentary. And while Schumacher does this extraordinarily well, there is also the aforementioned overwhelming element to it all: her entire girlhood, the good as well as the bad, the evilness with which she was forced to contend with.
To play devil’s advocate, this same tendency to overwhelm the reader could also be intentional, as Schumacher’s attempt to faithfully reremember the (at times) sinister atmosphere in which she came of age. Regardless,
Schumacher’s writing is as visceral as a fresh slap in the face: its Long Island Waspish roots run dark and deep, laced with a productive sort of anger that propels the singular life events she recounts always, always forward, just as Fitzgerald’s own green light did in his novel.
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