Margo Jefferson’s New Memoir Experiments With Form in Surprising Ways

a memoir
By Margo Jefferson
197 pages. Books of the Pantheon. $27.

If Margo Jefferson had taken up another profession – cabinetmaking, let’s say – she would be the type to draw and re-draw plans for a cabinet, build and tinker with the cabinet, step back to look at the cabinet from every angle, probing the purpose of woodworking, pausing to go and examine 2,000 other cabinets, then disassemble its own product and start from scratch with alternative tools, creating an object that no longer looked like a cabinet but fulfilled all the functions of a cabinet in a surprising way.

Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, not a cabinetmaker (that I know of), but it’s in that spirit that his second memoir, “Constructing a Nervous System” is set. His experience is instantly effective.

The book accompanies Jefferson’s debut memoir, “Negroland,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2016. “Negroland” tells the story of growing up among Chicago’s black upper class; Jefferson’s father was a prominent physician and his mother a fashionable socialite. Margo and her sister, Denise, were sent to ballet class and outfitted in matching wool coats with Persian lamb collars; they mastered orthopedically correct posture and sharp speech. Balance, balance, balance.

In “Negroland,” Jefferson asked, “What made me and mutilated me? His new book begins by cross-examining what that “me” is, posing the question of how to write a memoir when you chafe at the concept of authority. Two solutions come to mind. One, go crazy. Two, redrawing the boundaries of the genre. Jefferson selects option 2, and the title of the book is a sly description of the project, the “nervous system” referring not to fibers and anatomical cells, but to the materials – “chosen, imposed, inherited, invented” – which blend into one identity. And that can, with skill, be coaxed into a narrative.

A quick scan of the pages can set off alarm bells for those who fear italics, bold, capitals, dictionary definitions and bulky quotations. But this is a book for deep submersion, not quick reversal. It’s date reading. Erase the calendar and validate.

Issuing commands as above is one of Jefferson’s techniques. “Read on,” she commands at one point. At another, discussing Bud Powell, she insists, “Don’t feel sorry for him. She writes in the first and second person — and also, because why not, with the voice of Bing Crosby. She borrows the vanity of a forensic procedure to investigate Willa Cather’s work. There are letters, calls to action, song lyrics, aphorisms, annotations, unearthed journal entries, minstrel theory. There are excerpts from Charlotte Brontë, Katherine Mansfield, Ida B. Wells, Czeslaw Milosz; allusions to Beckett, Robert Louis Stevenson and Dante.

It takes a strong sensibility to make all this jump-cutting not only cohesive but hypnotic. Jefferson’s sensibility is one of extremely personal engagement with art. Yes, part of the book is hypertextual rumination on the nature of memoirs, and there’s a sprinkling of traditional autobiography – she writes about her father’s depression, her teaching career, a love affair – but in the dance between the autobiographer and the critic, the critic is in the lead.

Credit…Claire Holt

At the start of the book, Jefferson remembers picking up a handful of Ella Fitzgerald records from his parents’ collection. Having been raised to extol physical impeccability, a preteen Jefferson was disgusted at the sight of Fitzgerald’s “sweat and size” on album covers and television appearances. She couldn’t reconcile the vocal version of womanhood with the fact that Fitzgerald had working sweat glands. By revisiting her own unease, Jefferson exposes the relationship between black women and sweat, work and glamour.

These encounters with artists – Powell, Josephine Baker, Harriet Beecher Stowe and beyond – are delightful and rigorous, but they are interrupted by worries and admonitions. “I have reached an emotional impasse here,” Jefferson writes, and “These confessions and accounts have exhausted me” and “STOP! Pull yourself together, Professor Jefferson. A drill sergeant has infiltrated the nervous system.

Stumbling upon one of these phrases is an unexpected jolt of intimacy, like glancing down the street and seeing a neighbor wandering naked past the window. In “Negroland,” Jefferson wrote about the semiotics of self-presentation — how an unhydrated elbow or knee signaled deficiency, while a closet full of occasion-specific wallets represented flawless preparation. His nervous outbursts energize an equally meticulous style of writing.

I hesitate to attribute Jefferson’s examined self-awareness entirely to gender, race, or class. All of these ingredients matter a lot, but it’s also true that some people are born self-aware and some people become self-aware, while others never become. (We all know specimens of this supernatural anomaly, the self-confident man.) I say this not to obscure the specificity of Jefferson’s life – the expression of which is the point of all memoir – but to situate it in an artistic tradition that includes Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman: ruthless self-excavation and scrupulously free from solipsism.

Jefferson writes of the need for “license” as a young woman, dispense with playing “with styles and characters deemed beyond my reach”. She – along with other recent innovators in the form, like Carmen Maria Machado, Joy Harjo and Maggie Nelson – grabbed that clearance and tore it to shreds.

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