Published in The Harvard Advocate, Spring 1999
We drove. I sat on my mother’s lap in the driver’s seat and steered while she did the pedals, keeping us at 15 mph. She held her hands an inch away from the steering wheel, hovering, in case I overestimated one of the turns on our twisted road in Los Trencos, California. It was just the two of us, my mom and me – so nobody told her she was crazy. My mother knew: at five I was coordinated enough to steer the car.
In my aunt Mona Simpson’s book, A Regular Guy, a girl named Jane also drives. Her impoverished mother, Mary di Natali, sends her to find Jane’s rich father, Tom Owens.
I didn’t read the book for two years. Mona sent me the manuscript before publication, and asked me to read it over. I expected it to be a series of conversations from a cocktail party, an idea I remembered her telling me about years before. She told me that I was to tell her if I thought she should change anything. I was honored. After reading only a few pages, it was clear that the book was about something different—but I only read so much then, and I only asked Mona to change a few details. I was intimidated to ask her to change more. Who was I to tell an accomplished writer what to do? Her first two books, Anywhere But Here and The Lost Father earned her literary fame—her work has been translated into 14 languages. She is the recipient of Whiting writer’s award and a Guggenheim grant. She was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Yet, in the first few pages, I was confronted with my family, my anecdotes, my things, my thoughts, myself in the character Jane. And sandwiched between the truths was invention—lies to me, made more evident because of their dangerous proximity to the truth. Less than the uncanny resemblance between Jane and me, it is the mixture of fact and invention that grates. Jane is me and not me. Jane and I are playing tug-o-war; I am truth, Jane is lies, the rope is fiction.
Do I have a right to complain? A Regular Guy is, indeed, a work of fiction. The truths – points of commonalty between Jane and me – are mixed with equal or greater parts invention. Still, Jane bears a strong resemblance to me. Like me, Jane was born out of wedlock, grew up with a single mother, moved 13 times, and began the slow process of getting to know her father later in life. The book is cluttered with my life’s details parading as Jane’s—the “dangly” earrings I wanted to wear in sixth grade, descriptions of my old houses, how I ran for class president in high school. Like Jane, I was born in Oregon. My mother is an artist, my father an entrepreneur. Just like Jane’s.
I speculate about other connections. Jane di Natali, her full name in the novel, sounds very much like “Jondali,” my Arabic grandfather’s name which, by a twist of fate, I didn’t inherit. My hometown is Palo Alto, which sounds like Alta, the home base of the novel. My street is called Waverley, Jane’s is Mayberry. Objects, facts, events, emotions—all of the similarities between us jump out at me when I read them, like they are inked in bright red 18-point font. The book starts when Jane is ten years old, and ends when she is about 19, my age now. My aunt took six years to write it and it was published two years ago, in 1996.
I didn’t know, for those six years, that Mona was collecting. More than I have – I let time wash over me and slip through memory’s wide-meshed net – she gathered the grandest of stories and the smallest of details. Some scenes in the novel are so vivid that they jab me back to a mood and a time, years ago. It is a rare experience to find that someone unexpected has been holding captive moments of my past. She watched me when I was younger, sneaking contraband mini skirts and makeup into my locker, and later, during middle and high school, she was one of my primary confidants. I didn’t know that as I sought her consolations and took her advice, she, too, was taking. It was apparently a trade. And now I see myself, little bits of my past strung together, but mutated, in Jane.
Once, Mona bought me a Chinese pillbox from an antique store in my hometown. The woman behind the counter said, “She’s too young to have it, it’s precious.” I was elated to receive it after all; it is good to be young and immune to the rules. Now, in A Regular Guy I find it again: “On the corner was the antique store [with] the Chinese pillbox she’d lost…” (363). This pillbox is an enameled present Mona gave me, which, in the end, she kept. Even words smaller than my pillbox (which has just space enough to fit a ring) expand with connotations. Even the word Ye. When Mona and I hiked in Montana, and I easily lost belief that we’d ever make it to the top of the mountain, or that the top existed, she bribed me with chocolate fudge and dubbed me Ye of Little Faith. The dedication, “To Ye, who now has faith,” is, to me, a mountain, fudge, a chalky, opaque glacier lake, hundreds of dead bugs webbing the water surface, roots on the hiking path, shoes digging into my heels, socks that kept slipping, Mona, and me, ten years-old.
In his book, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco recalls how a friend arranged to take him to a planetarium in the science museum of La Coruna, in Galicia, and to show him, on the massive planetarium screen, the night sky on the night he was born. Eco wrote, “you will forgive me if during those moments I had the impression of being the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning” (140). In A Regular Guy I am able to watch myself, or someone very much like myself, start out my life. But Mona didn’t paint the night sky from scratch, she revised it.
How thin and permeable is the membrane between fantasy and fact? Jane and I are an example of how tenuous these distinctions are. It is sometimes thrilling to live vicariously through Jane. Some descriptions of Jane describe me more precisely than I could describe myself. Others distort. Is it the right of a fiction writer, like the expressionist painter, to distort? How did Madame Cezanne feel, while she was being painted over and over as frumpy, thick, and awkward? Perhaps she let Cezanne paint her because it was his labor of love. Or maybe she liked herself that way, distorted.
Some distortions are frightening. It is compelling, and sometimes dangerous, to combine life and fantasy – to read invention as if it were life. In the book, Owens and Mary are Jane’s parents. Owens is almost apathetic about Jane’s existence; Mary lives for little else. These are not my parents. But acquaintances of my family, who recognized the similarities between my life and Jane’s, assumed that Mary and my mother must be similar, too. My mother avoided A Regular Guy. No one wants to face their frail moments or to identify with a weak character. Mary has many awkward moments in the novel, where cameras catch her unaware in moments of guilt, grief, and hopelessness, like when she pleads with Owens to let her borrow one of his cars and “She lapsed into a fragile smile, which she expected would delight no one, like a poor tap dance” (94). She must have had moments of weakness. Was Mona watching for those? Like Mary, my mother is an artist who raised me alone. But she did not subject me to drastically changing bedtimes, expose me to squirrels that scratched and scarred me, or give me too little food. Nor did she send me in a truck across the country alone. She did not use palm readers to justify her actions, nor did she feel lovesick for my father. Mary hides behind her daughter, as one would behind a mask. For her “It was simpler to fight for the rights of the small person than to say, I want those big strawberries for myself” (119). My mother didn’t hide.
Once the myth of fiction is broken, it is impossible to read the novel as make-believe. For me, it creeps beyond its boundaries, and it distorts my perception of Jane and of myself. Mona changed the emphasis of my memories: she highlighted moments when Jane’s life intersects with mine. These are the moments that shine in the murky space of memory now. Pillbox facts dot the novel. The small facts I recognize are jarring, more than the general similarities between my life story and Jane’s. Many people could concoct a story of a child of a single mother – but few could weave in my very own antique box, a description of the view from my bedroom window, or my Arab ethnicity. I previously thought the arrangement of each liminal point in my life was like the arrangement of the little white Christmas lights we looped around an exposed pipe in my college dorm room: haphazard. But Mona created in Jane a plausible character. In some instances I see my past motivations more clearly through Mona’s lens. Black and white on a page is more easily sorted than the wash of emotion in days, weeks, years. But there are dangers to letting someone else delineate the patterns of my life: it’s easy to forget the rest of my memories, or to amplify the ones that are less important. My father said once, “Lis, you’re gonna remember this.” But all I remember is his voice: “Lis, you’re gonna remember this.”
Owens tells Jane, in her sixth grade too-much-makeup phase, the same thing my father told me: “You know, Ingrid Bergman never wore makeup” (116). His argument was convincing; I thought she was the most beautiful woman on earth. It is now common knowledge that Casablanca was shot day by day without her or anyone else in the cast knowing how the story would end. Ingrid Bergman’s charm and mystery in the film, her tender and ambiguous smile are there, in part, because she did not know which man she would choose. In A Regular Guy, Jane is choosing, too – between her mother and her father. Reading the novel, I remember and discover, page by page, like Bergman’s shot by shot, scenes from my past, and premonitions of my future.
I watch Jane to find out more about myself. Jane has some characteristics I wish I had – and Mona has talents I wish I had. Jane is smarter sometimes; she thinks of better metaphors than I do. When I try sushi I don’t like the texture, but I couldn’t say why. When Jane tries sushi she knows why it’s disagreeable—it lies on her tongue like another tongue. Why didn’t I think of that? She enriches my experiences by seeing more in them than I did. On her vacation in the South Pacific, Jane plays in the waves and follows a boy around. She catches him with a girl, kissing on the sand. This never happened to me. If it added to Jane’s character, would it have added to mine? My trips to Hawaii were spent making leis and lounging in the sun. My Hawaii was embellished for fiction’s sake, and Jane won.
Some aspects of Jane are character embellishments which ring too true—they’re aspects of me I hope no one else sees. In the final scene of the novel, in a flashback, Mona depicts Jane fitting into her first school uniform, a wool jumper over a white blouse and knee socks, relieved to finally be in the norm and join a group of schoolchildren. In the last line of the novel: “A bell rang and the front hall began buzzing with footsteps, as she’d imagined for years, and she hurried to get into the crowd” (372). I blush when I read this—is this how Mona sees me? I hope not. Yet it is an apt metaphor for me, the most conformist member of a family of sworn iconoclasts. Reading it, I have a tinge of guilt for the joy I feel to be Jane, dressed just right, joining the crowd. Maybe it is Mona’s present to me. Jane gets to dash into a welcoming throng of friends and belong. Jane, Ye, and I get our faith in the end.
In first person, though, Jane haunts me. She knows my thoughts. In italicized verse, Jane sings to herself. I sing along: “Remember Jane: never give away your luck” (231). These are words I’ve said to myself before, replacing her name with my own. And some of Jane is me, imperfectly. The narrator describes Jane selecting her favorite room in her father’s new house when no one was home: “…she picked out the room she wanted in the new house, the one next to Owens’. She’d tried it, lying down on the bare floor” (251). How did Mona know I did this? Later the narrator mentions that Jane forged her father’s signature on her college application. I did, too – he was away on business and it had to be done. How did she know? Mona describes Jane’s confidence in her father: “in a way she never was with her mother, Jane felt confidence in his driving, even when he sped” (229). It was the same for me. I remember the small eye-shaped crack in the windshield on the passenger side of my mother’s old silver Honda. When she drove I was often afraid we would crash and, right before I fell asleep in the car, I’d ask that eye to watch the road for me. With my father I was secure. After our silent car rides, I “always regretted the minute [we] touched ground” (230). But I thought this was my memory alone. These are thoughts and actions Mona couldn’t have known because I didn’t tell anyone. No one saw me. Are lives transparent? Is mine? Mona must have been the eye on my mother’s windshield glass, looking in.
Jane’s most accurate, powerful moments are not always realistic ones. In a chapter called “The Driving Child,” Jane drives across the country to claim Owens for the first time. Mary taught her to drive painstakingly, in a series of night lessons on deserted roads. It is one of the most fantastic scenes in the novel. Mary attached wooden blocks to the gas pedal and the brake so Jane could reach them with her ten-year-old legs. Of course, I never drove at night, or alone before I had a license. It felt like that, though, getting to know my father for the first time. More than anything else, it had the speed, tunnel vision, and required the courage of a first night drive. From eating sushi to taking a solo drive, Mona second guessed me. Even in the most surreal moment of the novel, I am still Jane.
According to Eco, “In fiction, precise references to the actual world are so closely linked that, after spending time in the world of the novel and mixing fantastical elements with references to reality, as one should, the reader no longer knows exactly where he or she stands.” After the publication of Eco’s book Foucault’s Pendulum, a childhood friend wrote him: “Dear Umberto, I do not recall having told you the pathetic story of my uncle and aunt but I think you were very indiscreet to use it in your novel” (9). In fact, Eco had used his own uncle and aunt as a model for the imaginary characters. Eco’s friend was so absorbed by the story that he thought the book described his own relatives.
Perhaps I am like Eco’s friend, reading too much into Jane. Similar events happen to different aunts and uncles, and to different girls ages 10-19. Maybe for an author to create fictional characters, she has to render them so realistically that they breathe. Do Jane and I just converge? Biologists call a duplication of shapes and behaviors in unrelated animals “convergent evolution.” Creatures such as bats and birds converged because they independently came up with a similar biological solution to the same ecological problem—flight. Charles Darwin wrote, “I am inclined to believe that in nearly the same way as two men have independently hit on the very same invention, so natural selection, working for the good of each being…has sometimes modified in very nearly the same manner, two parts in two organic beings” (Sunquist). If bats and birds “invented” flight, maybe Mona invented Jane, and Jane corresponds with me. Or maybe Jane and I converge because Mona and I do. Mona had a family structure similar to mine. Maybe Mona knew – at the moment that Jane found a perfect room in her father’s new house – that Jane would lie down on the floor because she, Mona, might have done the same. Maybe the skeleton of my family was a perfect platform for Mona to flesh out herself.
In an interview with Salon Magazine Mona said, “fiction confuses people because you know there’s probably some little nuggets of the person’s life jumbled up in their work, but you don’t know what they are… I think as a writer you inhabit all the roles anyway” (Press). Much more than I am, Mona is present in the novel. She is Owens, Mary, Jane and the omniscient narrator. She doesn’t abridge the painful, awkward moments of her characters, some of which may be her own moments—instead she seems to have accentuated them. The pain that rings through Owens, Mary and Jane gives the novel depth and pathos. Like Mary, Mona committed to memory scenes and feelings from her past that other people prefer to forget: “Other people she understood, did not save these shards; they felt the cut and denied them, breaking the truth to fit their stories” (321). In this way she is, more than a thief, a martyr for her craft.
After the book was published, during the two years I didn’t read it, I wondered what happened to Jane in the end. When I went out with Mona to discuss A Regular Guy at a coffee shop a few months after its publication, I told her I hadn’t read it all yet—that I couldn’t. She said I would like what happened to Jane. I imagined the final pages of the book might be like the final scene in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude when Aureliano finds his fate written in parchments. In them is the history of the family—down to the most trivial detail—one hundred years in the future. He reads the illuminated parchment in the darkness as a cyclone tears apart the town: “he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror” (422). I never had this experience. When I did read A Regular Guy two years later at the age of nineteen I was the same age Jane was at the end of the novel.
In an interview Mona explains, “The important thing is to know what of life will translate to the culture of the page and what will not, and to understand that significant distinction” (Press). As a writer Mona seizes aspects of life and imagination that are fiction-worthy—but the most important parts of life aren’t. I thank Mona for preserving pieces of my life, though. And I think of Jane, too—we both have our night drives. But my stories are mine. I take them back. I say to her: Jane, never give away your luck. You are a character I will always root for. And you’re on your own.