Monday, October 13, 2008

Mike Barnes's Lily Pond: The Toronto Launch

Though we launched Mike Barnes's memoir The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis last Thursday in Hamilton, Ontario at St. Joseph's Hospital, the Toronto launch is this Wednesday, October 15th at Caversham Booksellers (7:00-8:30) {98 Harbord St.}. Though I will not be able to attend this one, I urge every single one of you who can to do so. I think that Mike's memoir is an important book: as I've said elsewhere, having a tendency to wallow in the dark waters from time to time, I've read a lot of these books, and I think this is among the best. Better than Styron, better than Jamison, both of which are defaced by the self-congratulatory notes of overcoming which mar so many of these tomes. In the Lily Pond one gets a sense of a life lived with mental illness: "the door swings both ways," Mike writes, and depending upon which side of the door one finds oneself, this can be either hopeful or horrifying, extremes captured with elegant restraint in this book.

Shane Neilson, doctor and poet, made the trek from Guelph for the Hamilton event, and reported on it thereafter on his blog. I'll paste it in below here in the hope that it will convince a few of you to make this reading. Mike was fabulous. It was, without a doubt, one of the best talks/readings I HAVE EVER BEEN TO, and he'll be giving a similar discussion at this one. Mike deserves an audience for this one, and I'm hoping that any of you Toronto area Biblioasis-o-philes who give a shit will make this one, if you don't make another until 2010. Please.

Here's Shane Neilson's take on Barnes's launch in Hamilton last Thursday. I'll post my own thoughts and photos, as promised, soon.

A lifelong project: mental illness, over thirty-five years of it. Mike Barnes, the author of The Lily Pond, read tonight at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, a place he had been a resident of, long ago, and this was no mere reading. I detest readings, I would rather read the book in question myself to myself, I find that readers read their books wrong, but Barnes prepared an actual presentation: sure, he read from his book, but he also expanded upon the themes of his book as he simultaneously compressed the themes of his book through supplementary anecdote and musing.
It helped that he had what Heaney termed Lowell’s command: this is a survivor of mental illness, but not in the victimized sense; this is a man that has come through, but who questions what he has come through and what he is coming into; this is a writer who is perpetually writing precarious dispatches, but who is granted repose; this is a writer who steadfastly refuses the romanticism of madness, who attests to the dead zones of his life, who can refer to entire stretches as “pointless.” Barnes was eloquent, it was as if he had assembled all the outtakes of his book of memoir-essays and weaved them together for his audience that night. I say command: Barnes had the room, utterly. He possessed us for an hour. And then released us.

One became aware something remarkable was happening when, at the beginning of the evening, Barnes’ publisher actually wept when introducing the author; it was clear that the publisher had his allegiances, and they were for his writer, and he was protective of this writer, and respectful of this writer, but moreso simply moved by the power of this writer, and not by the mere power of Barnes’ example, which as the evening progressed was undeniable; no, the publisher believed in the actual writing, it was the harrowing lyricism and questing metaphors and difficult questions that provoked this response in the publisher, and I must confess it was the emotional template for the evening. I think of the usual glad-handling and puffery at such events. This was very different. Barnes' avowed honesty was contagious.

When Barnes spoke, I felt tumult; it was as if I were being confronted with the very fact of mental illness, its diminishments and levelling; at points I thought it was less like Barnes was speaking and the illness was speaking instead. This might have been more chilling if Barnes wasn’t so matter-of-fact; though the illness was stark, the insight and self-knowledge gained as a result tempered the extremity.

So much of memoir nowadays is about the author’s navel; in Barnes’ story, there are other people, Barnes has a fundamental curiosity about other people; I think this is, more than the myth and memory of the book’s subtitle, the real engine of his recovery. And reviewers are always attesting to the courageousness of the memoir writer when the writer is unflattering towards the subject, when the writer portrays themselves as bumbling or mistaken; I’m not sure Barnes could be called courageous or even resilient, because what choice did he have? He’s here; he has a story to tell; the story is compelling. But I imagine that in the room the illness was there, that it fretted about which seat to take before it decided to sit down next to the publisher, who seemed sympathetic, and it paid very close attention to Barnes. And that Barnes seemed to know it was there, and that this was normal, and that Barnes had done a lot of withstanding, and transcending, and the illness had done a lot of witnessing, too. Not exactly colleagues; not exactly at ease with one another; not enemies; but brought together in the same room, though a door that Barnes memorably describes in his book. I’ll leave that for you to open.

Barnes admitted that there was a conversation going on in Canada about mental illness, and that he wanted to be a part of it. The Lily Pond is a considered manic statement; and though I said I would not admit that Barnes is courageous, and I still think what matters is the writing, not the surviving, I will admit that returning to St. Joseph’s, a place where he was almost a nullity, a frail patient, has to represent some kind of courage.

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