Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Life styles

I think of biographies as coming in three flavors: traditional pop bio, usually of actors and politicians and historical figures, which cover the surface of the subject, presenting a mix of facts and gossip and written with a light tone; academic bios, usually of writers or scientists or, well, academics, which are done with lots of research and footnotes and written in a more serious fashion; and autobiographies and memoirs, which cover anything the subject wants us to know. Lately I've read three biographies and I seem to have stumbled on a fourth type: the biography which tells us more about the author than the subject, and in which style seems to be the main concern.

The first and most traditional one, Unknown Pleasures, is by Peter Hook, the bass player for the legendary punk group Joy Division (pictured above; Hook is the bearded one), which after the suicide of the lead singer, Ian Curtis, metamorphosed into the techno band New Order.  Hook sticks here mostly with the tightly circumscribed time frame of Joy Division’s existence from 1976 to 1980. He spends most of the book describing the daily doings of the band: the gigs, the offstage shenanigans (which were much less gloomy and dangerous than one might expect given Joy Division’s dark image), the recording sessions at which their somewhat sludgy sound was meticulously created. There’s very little insight into psychology or intention or even the music and lyrics they were performing.

The most interesting thing he says is that he and the other members had no idea that Curtis was so far gone that he might be a serious suicide risk—because they never paid attention to Curtis' lyrics. I certainly would not hold them responsible for trying to save him, but for a band that was taken seriously for their "authenticity," I find this an amazing revelation. Granted, Hook didn't sing the words, but the fact that none of them had any idea what was going on in the songs lyrically is astonishing to me. Hook's style is very informal and chatty, and sounds unforced, so it's a fast read. He does present occasional flash-forwards to contentious moments in New Order's career—one of the running threads in the book is the collapse of his friendship with bandmate Bernard Sumner—and that makes me wish that he'll write a sequel.

The most frustrating one of the three is Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream by Tom Folsom. The actor (Blue Velvet) and director (Easy Rider) Dennis Hopper would seem to be a fascinating subject for a biography, but Folsom doesn’t even begin to bring him to life on the page. The author thinks he's Tom Wolfe, but he has a long way to go. This is less a biography than a disjointed collection of drafts and sketches for chapters of a book. Folsom's concern is more for flashy word choice and shifts in typography. The shame is that Folsom seems to have had access to some interesting interview subjects, but almost completely wasted his chance to tell Hopper's story and get at what make him tick—Folsom seems to think that, like Charles Foster Kane, Hopper has a core moment or memory or incident that he never forgot and that may have ruled his life, but Folsom is unable to get near it, except that it may have been somewhere in Hopper's Kansas childhood. The chunk of the book on the making of The Last Movie is compelling, but nothing else in the book is worth much.

Finally, there is Vera Gran: The Accused by Agata Tuszyńska. Ostensibly the subject of this book is Gran, a Polish singer of the World War II years who managed to escape the Warsaw ghetto and wound up facing accusations of collaborating with the Gestapo. Her career never quite recovered, even though she continued to sing professionally into the 1980s. If she has a claim to pop culture fame, it's because one of her accompanists in the ghetto was the man on whom the movie The Pianist was based. The author got to know Gran in the years before she died in 2007 at the age of 91 and much of this book is simply the transcribed rants of her bitter, contradictory and not always lucid mind. Tuszyńska is a poet and this book, like Folsom's book, becomes more an exercise is authorial style than a biography. To her credit, she does touch on complicated issues like memory, survival, and the nature of collaboration with the enemy, but in an abstract fashion that pushes Gran away from the center of the narrative. The author is sloppy about setting up context, and skips over huge chunks of Gran's life that apparently do not fit her thesis. The fuzzy focus and the constant intrusion of the author into the story make this collapse into confusion before the end. Perhaps this should have been marketed as a personal memoir rather than a biography, though it would still be an unfulfilling read. Surely a woman who survived the Warsaw ghetto and a wild, often drug-fueled actor who embodied the 60s zeitgeist should have been more interesting to read about than a bass player in a 70s band that only produced two albums. Authors, get out of the way and put your subject in the spotlight.