She was drawing a brainstorm in purple pen, and the brainstorm was entitled What I want from life. She had only got as far as 'a dressing gown', and was now feeling the roof of her mouth with her finger, wondering what her friend looked like naked. Limited Dreamers
68% of this collection happened, apparently. 32% did not. Any attempt by the reader to figure out what is real and what isn't (or what is an exaggeration or a stolen dream) is futile. Writers are the best liars. They tell their fiction with pleasure, but they share their anecdotes with pride. Another person's dream can be boring as hell, unless told by someone with that ability to seduce. So, whatever percentage of these tales is 'true' does not matter, because even the most horrid scenes (and there are some particularly difficult ones) could have come from 'real life' but with the sharp corners filed down. Because that's what happens when trauma is translated into text.
My grief is so big it stretches my skin. My grief is so strong it crushes my bones… And my grief is so long that it dangles over my food when I'm trying to eat… What Happens When Someone Dies Twice
'Any Other Mouth' is a strange fruit. Before I began to read, I presumed it was a collection of short stories, but as it progressed, and the same characters (mum, dad, narrator, sister but also friends, lovers and ex-boyfriends) appeared over and over, I realised this was less 'fiction', more 'memoir'. The reappearing characters are actually the only characters and on the odd occasion that 'new' ones do appear, it's just the earlier ones loitering under an assumed identity.
The stories are presented pretty much in chronological order, beginning with the impact of loss, then taking a nosedive into varying degrees of sexual faux pas and mental illness before rising up in true phoenix style via the 12 steps to sobriety. AM focuses on her personal life cycles and circadian rhythms, the phases of grief, the stages to overcoming alcoholism. These kinds of things do not come from a happy place and I hope AM found some catharsis in their writing. But at no point does she allow you to pity her. Intentionally or not, she turns emotional states into matters of fact, details without the gravity of sentiment. Indeed some of these tales are so matter of fact that the author could be reeling off a shopping list or a fact sheet. At other times she leaves written instructions (for her future self, her imaginary lover or the person in charge of organising her funeral) on how she wants things done.
And I'm adamant that people talk about my bad points as well as my good. How stubborn I was. How unreliable, melodramatic. How controlling. I want people to cry when they hear the word "controlling". When I Die, This Is How I Want It To Be
What I particularly like about AM's writing is that it is so 'now', which surprises me because I don't go out of my way to read contemporary fiction. But this author draws you so closely into her world, puts her arms around you, offers you a cup of tea and a comfy seat and says, 'remember when…?' Google Maps, public transport and Macdonalds all make an appearance. Even Coronation Street gets a mention.
When Curly Watts named a star after Raquel on Coronation Street in 1994, Mum cried. 'I think that's the most romantic thing in the world,' she said.
The next Christmas, Dad named a star after her. She didn't cry, but said she liked it infinitely better than the dishwasher he'd bought her the year before. Like Runner Beans, Like Electricity
A recurring theme here, and the glue that binds the cycles and rhythms together, is that of 'family' - the genetic code, the nuances and peccadilloes passed down through the bloodline. The narrator, Gretchen, is daughter, sister, friend, lover. Her friends come and go, planets that rotate around Gretchen's sun. But the family members are constant, be they physically present or not. Memories of her father are solid and expansive; details of her mother's personality are refined and delicate. There are family secrets, the porn stash, the affairs, the guilty pleasures. And then there is the sister, who comes and goes like a shadow, mentioned often, but rarely seen.
When they left the surgery, Schmidt's sister walked beside them in a straightjacket, kicking stones and threatening suicide.
Had it been too soon to bring up the sectioned sister? Banana had a tattoo of a ghost on her elbow. Schmidt hoped that would make it okay. Limited Dreamers
There is also an awareness of identification (of the self, especially) and transference of knowledge, particularly carnal knowledge from one partner to the next. As sexual beings we teach and learn from each other as we pass on our experiences, leaving, in effect, an identi-kit troupe of 'perfect' sexual partners in our wake. Sex is an important theme here as the author covers all its bases - good sex, bad sex, forced sex, drunk sex, bored sex, 'I just want to feel something' sex, 'please like me' sex. She reiterates all the wrong reasons for copulation as well as some of the right ones, and in doing so embraces her vulnerability.
But what could possibly come next for someone who has laid herself so bare? With photos/videos on facebook and social/personal updates on twitter I feel like I've come to know her well. Too well perhaps. Despite the pointlessness of trying to figure out what is true (you think you have it, and then BAM, she throws a spanner in the works) you find yourself trying to anyway. There's comfort in knowing your weird truth is not just yours after all. But with all that out in the open I can't help but wonder where this author will go from here. And then I realise, AM can write about anything she wants to. She could write about the most mundane things because she can turn just about anything into something poignant and sincere. And that's the most any writer can ever really hope for.