The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received this book as an ARC through a LibraryThing giveaway. It doesn’t come out until September, and I’m kind of tickled to get to read it so early.
I initially entered the running for this book because it’s out of Beacon Press and because it’s about an escape similar to that which I’ve contemplated myself on many occasions. It was mostly—but not quite—what I expected.
For some reason, I thought it was going to be about an old guy going to the woods. I thought it would be about someone in his 60’s or maybe even 70’s, but instead Axelrod is only a few years older than I am, which I suppose some people would classify as “old,” but it wasn’t what I had in mind.
Then when I started reading and especially when I started to be drawn into the story, I kept worrying that maybe this guy is a jerk (only I didn’t use the word “jerk” in my head). Ever since one of the Mean Girls from my high school published a bestselling memoir that people on Facebook keep quoting, I’ve approached memoirs with caution, worried that I might get drawn into the insights of someone who seems deep on paper but is actually not quite like that in real life.
Axelrod grew up in one of the affluent suburbs of Boston. He went to Harvard. By his own admission, things always came pretty easily for him. He seemed a bit of a ladies’ man. All of these were details that made me wonder: What did the people who weren’t his friends think of him? Did people in his high school think he was whatever the Mean Girl equivalent is for a guy? If he was or even is a jerk, does that decrease the value of his memoir?
While I remain cautious about drawing deep spiritual lessons directly from Axelrod’s memoir, I do feel some parallels between his experience of the world and my own. The book helps me see some of the questions with which I’m perpetually grappling—about the nature of identity and the extent to which we live in the world as humans have created it rather than the world as it actually exists under the monoculture lawns and the sidewalks we drive by to get to the gym—through a different lens.
And the book is quite well written. The language is rich and engaging. Some devices are a little obvious—like the knock on the door at the beginning that doesn’t get answered until way later in the story—but that doesn’t really diminish their effectiveness.
I appreciate how Axelrod shows the arc of his experience and his personal growth, from the accident that made him second-guess everything to the missteps he made as he tried to fit his new situation and awareness back into his old life, and all the way through his bad times and alienation and eventual and reluctant return to the “real world” (or at least the world in which most of us live our daily lives).
I’ve often wondered if it’s possible, once one has lived deliberately (to invoke Thoreau, someone whose memoir I’ve so far been unable to finish because it’s so self-important) and pried away the veneer from daily life, ever to be able to return to the world everyone else calls “home” with any semblance of belonging. With neither false self-deprecation nor overstatement of the importance of his personal experience to anyone but himself, Axelrod provides one example of how this sort of societal re-entry can happen.
I do wonder, though, had he been more intentionally self-reflective before the accident, had he wrestled a little more with issues of identity and belonging, would he have been knocked so flat when that view of the world and his place in it shifted? As someone who feels perpetually out of place, would I handle that sort of accident and the resultant existential crisis any better? (Thinking back on crises of similar intensity in my life and how I responded to them, I would have to answer, “probably not.”)
And then there’s this question, always on the periphery when I read a memoir, and which especially lurked when I read this book, addressing as it does the issue of how we see ourselves compared to how others see us:
If I wrote a memoir, how many people would say, “Oh, I know her; she’s a self-important jerk”?
That avenue of thought generally dampens my enthusiasm for memoir-writing.
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