Friday, July 5, 2013

Notes From the Nightstand: Hard Laughter

When I cracked open Anne Lamott's first novel, Hard Laughter, and saw my favorite e e cummings poem on the very first page, I was convinced that she and I were soul mates. I have really enjoyed a couple of her nonfiction books, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and was looking forward to exploring some of her fiction writing. I viewed that "I thank You God for most this amazing/day:" as a sign of great things to come. Unfortunately, I really struggled with this book, and it took me forever to read (because I rarely can allow myself to completely give up on a book - I just end up dragging myself through the ones I don't like at a snail's pace).

Hard Laughter was Lamott's first book, and first novel, which she wrote in her early 20s for her father after he was diagnosed with brain cancer (from which he eventually died). As so often is the case, the first book is never the best book, and I think you have to cut this one a little slack as such. However, I couldn't recommend this book to anyone as it really has no plot and the characters are all so odd that probably very few people would identify with them enough to pull you through the stream-of-consciousness meandering.

As is her usual style, Lamott has some truly hilarious observations and there are some honest and heartwarming moments, but there are too many head-scratching, bonkers, Northern California hippie commune moments and characters that overburden the good points. There also just isn't enough storyline about her father's battle with cancer - supposedly the point of the book - to carry the rest of the nonsense.

The main character, Jennifer, who is a stand-in for Lamott herself, is a complete nut. And one of her best friends is a precocious ten-year-old girl, which I never could get into. Her other friends and lovers are also fairly annoying personalities, although her family members are endearing in a kind of kooky Royal Tenenbaums fashion. I don't usually have a problem with drugs and weird sex and mental institution escapees in my reading material, but I could have used less of them here, replaced hopefully by more plot.

Where she's best, as she is in all of her books that I've read, is when Lamott is writing about writing. Jennifer and her father, Wallace, are both writers, as are Lamott and her own real father. The passages describing Jennifer's writing process and why she chooses to be a writer are the only parts where I turned down the corners of the pages to mark the good spots. As she says in the book, "Happy work is as gratifying as sex or hard laughter or love or good drugs." I believe her.

If you're looking for a book to take on the airplane to Vacationland with you, I'd say skip this one - unless perhaps you're on your way to Marin County to drop a lot of acid for your summer holiday. Then, by all means - you can have my copy. Everyone else would be better off to pick up Operating Instructions instead.

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