Last summer I wrote a post about a memoir that had a positive effect on my book project: Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father.
The title, The Bill from My Father, serves as a reminder throughout the book that there is a reason Cooper keeps his father at arm’s length most of the time–sometimes even farther, such as when he let a period of several years ago by without communication. The title refers to the father sending his son a bill for the cost of bringing him up. The father is a “character,” in the sense my mother means–somebody I would call a “piece of work.” His son tries to make sense of the man and of his own feelings about his father in this remarkable memoir.
Although I’ve learned something about writing my book from every memoir I’ve read, this book has probably been the most important to me–at least in pulling the book together into a narrative.
Let me break a big rule of writing and quote myself (from that post):
[Cooper] sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death. Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.
His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback. And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.
What I plan to do is use “a present-day framework that moves to the past and then comes back to the present again.” Again and again. A weaving together of various time periods. Let’s hope it works.
Back to Cooper, the father seems to get progressively crazier as he ages. It eventually becomes clear that he has Alzheimer’s, but Cooper doesn’t have this context for his father’s nutty or dangerous antics until he comes to this realization. Since the father has always been a difficult person and the onset is so gradual, it seems as if his odd behavior is just part of who he is/was.
There is a scene where the old man attacks the DWP man with a potato peeler. Twenty pages later, after his father has died and Cooper wants to open the packaging of a video (it’s a Christian video about Hell and was given by the father’s caregiver/girlfriend–the Cooper family is Jewish), Cooper accidentally picks up a potato peeler. In this passage, we see him re-thinking his views on his father. I love the way the action functions as a metaphor of sorts. We are used to “things” being metaphors or symbols, but it’s Bernard’s absentminded grasping of the potato peeler that seems more potent because it echoes his father’s earlier action which was viewed as nutty.
If you have had a difficult parent, this book is a must-read. If you have a parent with Alzheimer’s or have struggled with conflicted feelings about an aging parent or a parent who has died, this book is a must-read. Even if none of those applies to you, the book is a must-read.