“Where the Roots Reach for Water” and “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs”

Two brilliant accounts of depression suggest that at century's end memoir may be our most dynamic form.

Topics: Books,

Henry Miller noted that there are two kinds of writers: those who write the Truth and those who don’t; simple as that. Memoir is tricky, though. A factually accurate spilling of the guts has very little to do with the kind of artistic truth to which Miller — himself a depressed autobiographical writer — was referring. But two new books on depression by two vastly different writers prove that the memoir, despite its increasingly shaky reputation in this decade, may yet be our most malleable and dynamic form.

Jeffery Smith’s “Where the Roots Reach for Water” is part autobiography of depression and part cultural investigation into what, exactly, depression is. Smith pondered drowning himself in a Montana river when his cocktail of medications sent him spiraling even further out of control than the depression they were meant to treat had; after that event, he embarked on an intellectual journey in search of the true face of melancholia (his word for depression). The result is, like Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a compendium of one writer’s reading and thinking on the subject — essentially, a highly aestheticized commonplace book. What makes it singular is the intellectual and moral seriousness with which he thinks and writes about his illness while in the grip of it. And his control of structure and pacing is splendid.

The book is a searing account of his own depression. When Smith writes of stealing petty cash from the office where he has a job as a clinical social worker and not remembering it, then being asked to leave, you almost feel the effects of his illness — you are in the trap with him, humiliated. Intellectually, his investigation ranges from ancient theory, myth and astrology to Eastern philosophy, the literature of Appalachia, Christianity and contemporary psychology and biology. His ultimate point is that melancholia is and always has been an integral part of the complete self, and the notion of a pill to stanch the symptoms is ludicrous. The book is really two books, a personal history and a natural one, but ultimately it is a powerful, finely honed investigation into what, exactly, the self and sadness have meant and continue to mean over time and across cultural boundaries.



John Bentley Mays’ “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs” takes an entirely different tack. Mays states early on: “There are a great many books about depression. This is not one of them. It is pain written, not observed; a depressive writer’s writing, a testament transcribed from wounded flesh to paper.”

The author is the art and culture critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and this book began as an essay for the Canadian magazine Saturday Night. It is, in a sense, a testament transcribed. Where Smith investigates the nature of depression writ large and tries to make sense of himself within the myriad definitions, Mays unwinds the memories of his life (his defeats and losses and humiliations), rescuing scenes and events from oblivion and reimagining the crucial moments. Growing up in the American South, he lost his alcoholic father (who may have been murdered) when he was 7. His mother died of lung cancer when he was 11. He was already thinking about suicide when he went to live with his father’s parents. In 1968, as a graduate student in English, he made his first suicide attempt.

Mays writes eloquently of his ongoing struggle, of the ever-present pull of death, of his family, of literature, of his Christianity. However, the book is less a literary memoir (that is, a nonfiction narrative that is dependent on the formal devices of fiction) than Mays’ memoirs, by which I mean the kind of birth-to-now record of one’s life usually reserved for celebrated public figures. What raises “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs” to the level of art is its language, which at its best has an elliptical lyricism reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” (though at its worst it plummets toward narcissistic bathos). All in all this is a moving, uncomfortable record of a joyless life in which every moment has been one to endure.

At this point, memoir presents the seemingly endless possibilities that the novel did at the end of the last century. What the form needs now is writers willing to take risks — which Smith and Mays surely do.

Greg Bottoms is the author of "Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks: Stories," from which this story is excerpted. It will be published in September. His previous book was "Angelhead: A Memoir," which will be released in paperback in September.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>