Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

NBCCLeonard Picks 12: Susan Comninos on Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This

by Susan Comninos | Oct-20-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The twelfth in our series is NBCC member Susan Comninos on Nadja Spiegelman's I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This (Text Publishing).

In 2009, Nadja Spiegelman, then a 22-year-old intern for the Jewish Forward, interviewed me because the newspaper was publishing my poem “pecan, rodef, clam,” a look at a fetus posing a threat to its mother’s life, which Jewish law says can be aborted till the point of crowning. The poem explores the struggle over whose existential narrative — mother or child’s — will take precedence.  

What I didn’t know then was that Spiegelman — the daughter of Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” shows his parents’ survival of Auschwitz-Birkenau — had begun exploring a theme of unwilling parenthood on the maternal side of her family. During her off-hours, she was laying the groundwork for her notable debut memoir, “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This,” the result of her interviews with her mother, Francoise Mouly, the art editor of The New Yorker, about the latter’s painful upbringing in France, as well as the pair’s fraught mother-daughter relationship.

Born to a cosmetic surgeon and his beautiful wife, Mouly experienced her own parents, who ultimately divorced, as narcissists, who valued their egos and extramarital affairs over their children. (Her mother even began a fling with the father of Mouly’s first fiancé, collapsing her daughter’s engagement). To escape her parents’ orbit, Mouly fled from Paris alone, and at 18 years old, to New York City, where she met her husband. After their first child, Nadja, was born, “I realized that I could reinvent motherhood,” Mouly later said. As with the family’s Soho loft, which she’d single-handedly refurbished, she initially papered over the past so well that her little girl thought that her maman was magic.

“When I was a child, I knew my mother was a fairy,” Spiegelman writes, and her admiration — for the mignon Mouly’s creative mightiness — never flags. “On weekends, she put on safety googles, grabbed a jig saw, and remade the cabinets in her bedroom. She ran a hose from her bathroom to the roof to fill my inflatable pool. She helped me build a diorama of the rain forest, carving perfect cardboard birds of paradise with her X-Acto blade.” 

But their relationship changed. As Spiegelman approached adolescence, Mouly grew increasingly angry, and her daughter felt the target of her rage. Triggers included Nadja’s changing body (where Mouly was oxymoronically thin — “She never ate, then she ate like a wolf” — Spiegelman was overweight). Further, the girl’s sense of reality was straying from her mother’s own. Accusations followed: Nadja had thrown away all the spoons, eaten treats meant only for her brother, moved her mother’s papers. (“‘Stop lying,’ I was told. And yet I was incapable of apologizing for things I had not done.”) The petty nature of the complaints aside, Mouily’s wrath — her daughter suggests — could explode into violence, followed by a disturbing maternal amnesia. 

“‘You’re exaggerating, Nadja,’ she would say, a week later. ‘How could I have kicked you up the stairs?’” Confused, Spiegelman would turn to her diary, inscribing the events with a coded “R,” to verify for herself that the raging — even physical — brawls were real.

To better understand her mother, Spiegelman, in her 20’s, began exploring the dynamics that had driven Mouly from France — even relocating to Paris to hear her grandmother’s side of the stories. There, she made an unexpected discovery: her maternal line had been marked by girls born out-of-wedlock. A resulting shame had trickled down from one generation to the next, staining a series of mothers’ stances toward their daughters. 

As for Spiegelman’s own model: readers familiar with her father's “Maus” will see the parallel between her memoir and his comic-strip masterpiece. Art Spiegelman began their tradition of interviewing family members — in his case, his father, Vladek, who outlasted the Nazis — but about much higher stakes. 

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that his daughter considers their two projects to be morally equivalent. She doesn’t — and it’s while hunting down her maternal history that she uncovers a grotesque irony in the family tree. Where her Jewish grandparents were victims of the Nazis, some of her French forbears engaged more-or-less intimately with Fascists.

For better or worse, family history repeats itself, and Spiegelman’s first-hand discovery of this fact gives meaning to her struggles with Mouly. “[N]ow that I knew her past,” she writes, “I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.” 

At times, her memoir strays from its focus, with a segment about 9/11 feeling inserted to give the story more gravitas. But the book doesn’t need it. Like her father’s “Maus,” Spiegelman’s “I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This” goes far beyond its roots as a post-trauma memoir. Marked by curiosity and a gift for storytelling, her work fulfills a literary ambition all its own.

Susan Comninos is both an arts journalist and a poet. She’s covered books for The Atlantic Online, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Haaretz English Edition, among others. Most recently, her poetry’s appeared in Subtropics, Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and The Tishman Review. She recently completed a debut book of poems, “Out of Nowhere.”

#NBCCLeonard Picks #11: Michael Magras on Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter

by Michael Magras | Oct-18-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The eleventh in our series is NBCC member Michael Magras on Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter (Knopf).

For anyone who has ever suspected that the backroom activities of the staff at a posh restaurant are far juicier than the refinement on display in the dining room, Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s delightfully profane debut novel, is your validation. Danler, who worked in the restaurant business, has written a spicy-greens work of fiction: seemingly mild at first, but with a wit that grows more piquant over time.  

It’s June 2006. A 22-year-old English major named Tess arrives in New York City from her home in the Midwest. She’s happy to have exchanged “the claustrophobic noise of the cicadas” and small-town America’s “twin pillars of football and church” for a more exciting life. The first stop in that new life, after renting a $700-a-month bedroom in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment, is an interview at a fancy Union Square café. She can name only one of the “five noble grapes of Bordeaux”—a lucky guess—but the general manager hires her, anyway, after she tells him that, when she worked at a coffee shop back home, a diabetic customer stopped coming to the shop after her foot was amputated, and Tess would deliver scrambled eggs to the woman’s dog.

The restaurant owner tells her that she is a “fifty-one percenter,” that rare employee who has the intelligence, integrity, and self-awareness required for greatness. He’s right: Soon, the novice who had never heard the term cru learns that a Chardonnay is over-oaked if it’s vanilla and buttery, can distinguish a chanterelle from the smell alone, masters the crease-turn-crease-fan technique for folding linen napkins, and knows that, when you open wine at a table, you hold the bottle so that the guest—never refer to them as customers—can see the label.

One of the many pleasures of Sweetbitter is that Danler has written pitch-perfect backstories for each of the many staff members, most of whom snort drugs, smoke joints, gossip, and bandy the most creative of profanities. Will, one of the young “sergeants” who trains her, has created a Claymation version of Godard’s À bout de souffle and is now writing a feature film. Ariel, a dining room back waiter, tells Tess that she stole two Hallmark cards before she turned six, addressing one to John Lennon and one to her missing mother, and praying that they’d come to her party—a moot point, as it turned out, because her father forgot her birthday.

There’s the Chef who demands that no one but the owner speak to him while he prepares his masterworks in the kitchen. Jake, the bartender with whom Tess is smitten, has worked as a musician, a poet, and a carpenter, and is rumored to be a drunk and bisexual. In one of the novel’s many spot-on descriptions, Danler tells us that Jake “knew part of his job was to be looked at” and had “a stillness that made one want to paint him.” Tess isn’t the only one to have noticed him: Simone, a middle-aged woman who is one of the restaurant’s senior servers and can tell a wine’s vintage just by sipping it, has a complicated relationship with him. She and Jake “were not a couple, though their magnetic, unconscious way of tracking one another seemed to indicate otherwise.” What else can Tess conclude after she walks in on them in a back room of the restaurant and sees Jake with his trousers off? The closest this episodic novel comes to a story arc is the competition of sorts that Simone and Tess wage for Jake’s affections.

But plot is not the reason to read Sweetbitter. The joy is in its storytelling audacity, from stream of consciousness passages and long stretches of unattributed dialogue to the bracing juxtaposition of wait staff who do lines of coke in the bathroom of a bar yet treat a 90-year-old customer kindly when she wants to know when she will receive the soup she finished ten minutes earlier.

Any cook will tell you that, to prepare delicious meals, you start by choosing the best ingredients. But you still have to combine them with skill if you don’t want to end up with an unpalatable mess. With Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler demonstrates the same dexterity. One assumes that her time in the restaurant business provided the book’s components. But to whip up a concoction this good, you need to know how to put them together. You need to be a fifty-one percenter.

Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His reviews have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Review of Books, Iowa Review, and BookPage.

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