Tuesday, June 26, 2012

‘You Speak Up’

When I got my review copy of Louise: Amended, a new memoir by Louise Krug, I got a story that was riveting. It’s the story of a  young woman who was “used to getting by on her looks.” She lives “near Santa Barbara where only the very rich can afford to live.”

She’d like to be a journalist and is set to start a job reporting about “gardens, weddings and pets” for a local paper. But the night before the job begins, her brain starts to bleed.

Symptoms are serious. She drags her right foot when she walks. She finds the sounds of tires on pavement unbearable even with the car windows rolled up. She’d like to go to her new job, but can’t button her blouse.

When she makes it to a hospital, she’s told to consider the risky craniotomy: an operation by means of which her bleeding “cavernous angina” will be cut out of her brain.

During a long delay, she lives first with her mother in Kansas, then with her father in Michigan, struggling to do the most mundane tasks. Eventually she finds herself at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in a line of 50 people on gurneys awaiting surgery. Her surgeon, “wearing leather sandals and red socks,” writes “craniotomy” on her forehead with a Sharpie.

After the procedure, she’s told she’ll have trouble walking. She starts her recovery by crawling. A while later, “ten seconds of staying upright is an accomplishment.”

Months after surgery, she still can’t walk in a straight line. “The left side of my face is so weak that I have to hold my lips together in order to chew and swallow without food falling out,” Krug writes.
Is this progress? Krug writes: “The surgery, everyone says, was a success.” The words express her great ambivalence about whatever progress she makes after the craniotomy.

It’s an ambivalence that often veers towards resignation. She’s dismayed by what she’s lost — for instance, her entire sense of what her life was to be: “Louise has started to admit that she will not go back to Santa Barbara. She will not be pursuing that dream of toasting champagne glasses with the rich and beautiful …” As these words show, Krug sometimes writes about herself in the third person. She’s so altered she’s become foreign to herself.

Her post-surgery mood has a strong element of low self-esteem. She dates men she considers second-rate. When she finally meets a man worth dating, Nick, she thinks that “he, an attractive, normal guy, deserves an attractive, normal girl.”

These quotations make it clear that as a writer, Krug is immensely skilled at developing character. Early on, when Krug’s parents see her overwhelmed boyfriend Claude as a bad guy, she informs the reader that Claude is thinking “this has happened because he has bad luck … He got picked on in grade school … He has a string of ex-girlfriends who hate him.” He’s limited by his own damage.
Krug’s ability to build characters is complemented by a gift for providing insightful depictions of the human condition, especially as it takes form in the contemporary USA. Of herself, she writes, “I grew up in the Midwest, restless, thinking I was meant for something different. Something better. We all did.”

She does just as good a job of pinpointing another instance of the disappointment that follows great expectations. Of the divorce between her parents, Janet and Warner, she writes, “The problem was that Janet liked dinner parties and activities like karate and tennis. She liked the company of other people. Warner had a total of three friends ...”

These passages show that Krug is a master of minimalist prose style. Consider this beautiful description of the plain life in Krug’s mother’s hometown in Kansas: “It is early spring, and the big, empty sky is gray. There are no hills, and small black dots are cows. At the grocery store, real farmers with overalls and hats buy food just like everybody else.”

Throughout the book, Krug expresses displeasure with people who send her get-well cards with such “preprinted phrases” as “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason.” She stays true to her skepticism about rose-colored predictions and pat explanations. The book ends with no miracle cure; no glorious epiphany: just a long, hard slog to some sort of accommodation with everyday life.

But in the six years that follow the catastrophe, Krug manages to marry a good man and have a daughter. And she’s able to show her daughter how to get by and know what’s worth appreciating: “I want to show her that you look people in the eye, you speak up, you stand as tall as your body will allow, and you say your name.”

You can buy Louise: Amended for $10.96 at amazon.com.

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