Friday, July 03, 2015
Running with Scissors
"Yes." "So?" "Golly." "No." "My goodness." "Really?" and "Right". These are just a few possible reactions to a book. The reaction you are supposed to have to Augusten Burroughs's memoir Running With Scissors is "Wow!" But you might also think, "Oh, God."
Burroughs's first book was Sellevision, a satire on American home-shopping TV. In his new book he has successfully merged two other popular American television modes or genres: the confessional and the sit-com. Basically, if you took The Jerry Springer Show and had it worked on by the scriptwriters from Friends , you'd get Running With Scissors . Or if the Farrelly brothers had bought the rights to film Dave Pelzer. Or if Roseanne had read Douglas Coupland. As a pitch it's, like, totally out there, totally now - know what I mean? Really, really gross, but, like, so funny as well. Like last year's hot shocker, The Sexual Life of Catherine M , the book's veracity is irrelevant.
Burroughs grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, and he renders American period detail with a peculiar intensity. His mother's friend Lydia, for example, wears high heels and a white bikini, and sits by her pool, "smoking menthol cigarettes and talking on her olive-green Princess telephone". Clam-shells are used as ash-trays. There's a lot of Chanel No 5 and Donnie and Marie, and Burroughs occasionally rises to poetic effects that are reminiscent of early, faux-naïf David Byrne -"She is walking through the kitchen and out the other door of the kitchen. Our house is very open. The ceilings are very high. There is plenty of room here." Fa fa fa fa fa, fa fa fa fa fa.
Burroughs's mother writes dreadful poetry. His father is a university professor with psoriasis and "the loving, affectionate and outgoing personality of petrified wood". Burroughs himself is the kind of child who "liked to boil my change on the stove and then shine it with metal polish", and kept his hair "perfectly smooth, like plastic". He's a self-confessed nerd: "I would have been an excellent member of the Brady Bunch."
His parents are not at all happy: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "was the closest thing I had to a home movie", he writes. The parents divorce when Burroughs is 11, and his mother starts taking baths with broken glass, writing backwards with a glitter pen and discovering she is a lesbian. She abandons Burroughs to be reared by her psychiatrist, Dr Finch. Burroughs recalls the excitement and anticipation of seeing an actual doctor's house for the first time: "I imagined walls hung with exotic and expensive tapestries, polished marble floors, columns that stretched for hundreds of feet. I saw water fountains out front with hedges trimmed into the shapes of zoo animals."
Augusten Burroughs was born into an unhappy family. His father was distant and unappealing: ''He had psoriasis that covered his entire body and gave him the appearance of a dried mackerel that could stand upright and wear tweed.'' His mother was crazy: ''Gone were the days when she would stand on the deck lighting lemon-scented candles without then having to eat the wax.'' And ''the closest thing I had to a home movie,'' he writes, was ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?''
As he puts it: ''Unfortunately, my parents loathed each other and the life they had built together. Because I was the product of their genetic fusion, well, it's not surprising that I liked to boil my change on the stove and then shine it with metal polish.''
His mother was a diva from Georgia, and she had aspirations as a poet. In practical terms, this meant sending self-addressed stamped envelopes to The New Yorker and sitting around the house with shampoo devil horns while listening to Anne Sexton. Her frustrated artistic nature also led her to make decoupage art out of clippings from The Atlantic Monthly.
So Mr. Burroughs's mother spent much of her time under the intensive care of her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. Then, at age 12, the author found himself officially foisted onto the Ripley's-Believe-It-or-Not Finch family. His mother wound up making the doctor her son's legal guardian. And Augusten moved into a household even nuttier than the one in which he started. (On his Web site, www.augusten.com, Mr. Burroughs emphasizes that he has not made any of this up, though he has changed names and other details.)
''Running With Scissors'' is a bawdy, outrageous, often hilarious account of what in fact sounds like a seriously unhappy story. During the course of his memoir, Mr. Burroughs writes of being sent to a mental hospital (but only as a way of getting out of school) and of being sexually initiated by the 33-year-old man who lived in the Finches' barn. He also writes of such twisted domestic goings-on that some of this story might have been imagined by William Burroughs. This family's scatological method of fortune-telling would be right at home in ''Naked Lunch.''