Jon Garelick reviews 'Split' by Lisa Michaels.

By Jon Garelick
Published July 2, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Memoir doesn't require trauma. Larry Rivers' edgy rebop about trying to find a way to be an artist, Tobias Wolff's reflections on being a noncombatant schnook of a junior officer in Vietnam, John Berger's writing about cleaning his outhouse -- like good fiction, memoirs can transform ordinary experience just as they often redeem pain.

Amid the noise and haste of current memoirists, Lisa Michaels is one of the quiet ones. Family trauma is scaled down in this 32-year-old poet and essayist's first book. No raging alcohol and drug abuse here, no schizophrenic siblings, no parental abuse sexual or otherwise, no wild bipolar binges of self-destruction. And despite the analysis implied in the title, Michaels' boomer parents get off pretty easy. There are no grand proclamations, no calls for apology from one generation to another. In fact, when all is said and done, she likes her folks just fine.

Michaels' parents were political activists. When she was 3, her father, an SDS Weatherman, was busted for taking part in a violent demonstration at Harvard and began a two-year prison sentence. By the time he got out of jail, Michaels' parents had split. The child was soon off on a cross-country journey with her mother and new stepfather in a converted mail truck. The book follows Michaels up and down California as she travels between two sets of parents (and multiple step-siblings), all of them seeming to be constantly on the move. Then on to all-too-typical college ennui, an unwanted pregnancy, a postgraduate trip to India and a kind of enlightenment.

Despite any hardships and family eccentricities, there's nothing on its surface that's extraordinarily dramatic about Michaels' story. Reading it, you might be tempted to invert Tolstoy's maxim: All dysfunctional divorced families are pretty much alike, arduous visitation commuting and the child who "acts out" included. "I envied her for stealing my father away," Michaels writes of her kind, not-nearly-evil stepmother, "and she envied me for having come first, as no child should, and because he kept a special place for me -- the lost child who stayed lost." When young Lisa makes herself a "tea party" with gasoline, it's more an accident than the result of abusive neglect.

Michaels doesn't have the honed novelistic reflexes of a Wolff -- her perspective drifts, and her hindsight speculations clumsily break up the unity of potentially sustained dramatic scenes. It's not that we can't believe she would remember detailed dialogue from the age of 6; it's that she doesn't sustain the kind of narrative illusion that would let us suspend disbelief. Her father and stepfather are often indistinguishable from each other -- vague, stoic, male presences. But for all the clumsy passages and discursive nattering, Michaels' intelligence comes through. There are some wonderfully lyric passages of realization, a small section about discovering Brecht in college that's as strong as any character description in the book and a great, surprising moment when she's caught shoplifting virtually in front of her Marxist auto-plant-worker and labor-organizing father. And her soul-searching Indian trip offers gratifying conventional suspense. "Split" isn't a great book. But it introduces you to a writer with whom you want to stay in touch.

Jon Garelick

Jon Garelick is associate arts editor at The Boston Phoenix

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