Friday, February 22, 2008

The Sky Isn't Visible From Here

It's not often that I can recall how I discover new people, ideas, or writing on the web. But I do remember that I found Felicia C. Sullivan somewhere on theGarance.com, authored by Garance Franke-Ruta. Sullivan and Franke-Ruta are both writers of high quality, and so it was with interest that I selected Sullivan's debut book, The Sky Isn't Visible From Here from the library shelf.

The subtitle, "Scenes From a Life" is far more accurate than the more popular "memoir" designation given to many debuts these days. Sullivan flicks through her life as though paging through one of her photo albums, holding up pictures from one page and another, never in order, and not always in context. I raced through the first six scenes, intrigued by the pre-teen narrator and her mother, the spastic addict. But Part II of the book definitely drags through its melancholy, and I spent a few days looking at the book in my bag, and wanting to just be done with it already.

Sullivan's writing is both poetic and stark. Certain elements of her written moments leap out, almost assaulting the reader with their scents and colors and sounds. There are very few warm moments in the book; a good portion the reader spends shivering in bare and dingy apartments or sitting uncomfortably on the sidelines of a drug-fest. I felt unsettled reading this book, because it's an awful way to live, as an addict, as the child of an addict who becomes an addict. The erratic placing of present, near-present, past and near-past speaks to the craziness of Sullivan's mother, cast as the villain.

It was unnerving to read such a personal book and feel almost no sympathy for the author. While Sullivan worked hard in school, went to college and such, she nearly threw her life away for alcohol and cocaine, despite knowing what it had done to her mother and aunt. I have no way of understanding her trials, but there is a toughness in the way that she writes that almost dares me to admit that I don't understand it. She writes from a bruised perspective and I felt bullied by her written persona. At points she presents herself locked in a hotel room, while her mother gambles in the casino below with her step-father. But even from the point of being a young child of ten, she has a certain cast to her actions, and I cannot feel sorry for her. She is both tough and powerless; she cannot stand up to her mother, no matter how badly her mother treats her, and yet it is difficult for me to understand this.

I am obviously privileged in comparison, because I've never lived in fear of beatings, eviction, drug-addled abuse, or worse. Sullivan's pride will not allow her to describe her situation in a way that will make you feel sorry for her, and it is in this that I cannot bridge the gap between us, no matter that she is a skilled writer. Her words hold you at arm's-length, rather than inviting you in to experience the full weight of her world.

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