by Diana Rusu
It was one of those moments when you’re stuck in front of a freshly bought coffee in a paper cup, steaming next to your idle computer, somewhere in the space of a well-connected area: everyone’s tapping at their devices all around, mixing plastic water bottles, packed lunches, extreme typing skills, emotions, etc. I unbuttoned my jeans (to be free baby!!!) and ... I completely lost it. What was I saying? What was this story about??
The coffee starts to kick in and I’m trying to get myself together. Right. I’ve only now finished a book that I started 3 months ago; a book that I consider to be one of the very best memoirs that came out in the last few years. If 2016 was Zadie Smith’s year, this is the book of 2017. And I’m completely going crazy about it. I’m basically throwing hands in the air and my pupils dilate every time I recommend it to everyone that crosses my path. I’m that Moses person, raising my arms and thanking the Lord for these 14 chapters that have been given to me through a divine intervention.
WARNING! This is not just a memoir that needed to be written by someone who understands the power of comedy and also knows grief; it is a book that needs to be read RIGHT NOW.
“I mean, it’s not called a snow-woman, is it? A seven-year-old in pursuit of the Paramount Objective of Despising Girls finds it all conveniently laid out for him: the culture, the language – it’s really no effort.”
When I first saw this book I was like “is that Robert Webb???!! Has he written a book?? I. MUST. HAVE. IT.” So I got it. And as soon as I got it, I cried the minute I saw the contents, in the bookshop, standing.
How not to be a boy starts with a hilarious adolescence memory and feels like it happened yesterday; it even makes me question my abilities to stay focused on the story and not drift off to a Mitchell & Webb sketch. But I managed to read the first ten pages with tears of laughter and then something magical happened: age 15 started a conversation with age 43!! And then it hit me, I was crying & laughing at the same time and I thought this memoir has something of Johnathan Safran Foer’s wittiness in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Plus, it is incredibly open and sincere. It is like writing a book based on your therapist’s notes about you (which by the way I intend to do very soon). Seriously now, these authors have some out-of-this-world storytelling skills, without forgetting to stay grounded. Writing, when you have this level of sensitivity, is as surprising as life; writing is the only consolation, as Pamuk would say it in his Black Book.
“15: Bit self-indulgent, isn’t it?
15: This. You, talking to yourself.
43: You were expecting to grow out of it?
15: I wasn’t ‘expecting’ anything. Christ.
43: Can you stop that?
15: Stop what?
43: Looking at my hair. It happens.
15: Sorry. Just a bit of a shock. I mean, what the fuck – “
(How not to be a boy, p. 13)
The pain of childhood
Robert Webb was born in 1972. I imagine him growing up surrounded by brothers, friends, parents and grandparents – and his father, Paul, who was a “proper” man, with an explosive temper sometimes. Webb kept journals which he constantly updated. A blogger, no less (the first thing that I liked about him). And then there was this other thing, called childhood. I don’t even know where to start!
“ together with Mum or alone in my bedroom, stories were a way to reach distant places. But also, and without noticing, a way to reach distant people.”
Looking back at himself in journals and memory, he clearly has a story to tell. And this is where it all gets interesting and psychoanalytical. Personally, I kinda see where he's coming from. And I reckon it’s easier for people who didn't grow up with all the love in the universe to understand what I’m talking about. The lack of his father’s presence and attention only opened a door to other ways of getting that love: stories, acting, being famous. Because “dads don’t hit famous children, right? They don’t ignore them either. They take them fishing. You can be quiet when you’re famous, but people can’t ignore you. Not really.” (p. 116)
For some reason I fully resonate with this. I wanted to be famous so bad when I was little! I guess children want to reach fantastic worlds even though they’re fully present in the moment - the problem is, parents are not on the same page (it might be slightly getting better now). A child has only got Here and Now, so when the others aren’t there, sometimes they're going to reach for Narnia.
“Here’s the wardrobe that never yielded to Narnia no matter how faithfully I reached for the cold air.”
Speaking of ignoring, the memoir "with a hidden agenda” starts to reveal something else. We all know it, but prefer not to talk about it, innit? Webb talks about training young boys to ignore their feelings. Which is not bad, no, that's not enough: it is dangerous as fuck, but hey, we don’t have time to change the habits. Webb’s not surprised that most feelings of anxiety, fear or pain a boy might have will only come up as anger. He lived with it, and learned that boys aren’t shy; boys love sports; boys don’t fall in love (with other boys); men don’t need therapy; men are good at directions; men know who they are.
“And ‘femininity’ – what is it? Having hair? I mean, long hair on your head but none on your legs, under your armpits or within a square mile of your Feminine Ladysecret. Taste in scarves? A sense of colour? The capacity to shut the fuck up when men are talking? What is this stuff?”
Robert Webb starts a polemic against what he calls the trick. It’s a code name for all the gender nonsense that his young daughters and their male/ female friends often encounter. Now this is what I call parenting. Making sure that a child doesn't have to play different roles/behave in different ways just based on their gender. Not anymore, as someone's there to point out the trick. I wish every family talked about this, I wish there was a gender blender in every household. Yeah, the world would be a better place. Hell yeah.
My favorite bit of this memoir, though, is the bumblebee story. Which I'm not going to tell you about, so now you have to get the book and read it.
But I will share this, the most accurate portrait of a relationship in 2017, which I want to print on a giant canvas and hang above my bed:
“The stereotype of the Nagging Wife has proved very useful to those of us who are often the primary cause of all the nagging: the Useless Husband. Because these days, women who find their domestic situation deeply unsatisfactory won’t just need to complain, they’ll need to appologise for the complaining. Times change: the gin has given way to Pinot Grigio and nagging has gone post-modern.” (p.140)
Whatever Robert Webb wanted from this book and however he wrote it (it would be amazing if someday I could interview him) I’m grateful that he made himself helpful to others. Because not only women’s, but also men’s mental health is at a crucial point right now. It always has been. I don’t see it as a manifesto, and it doesn't need to be one, but as an excellent point to start a must needed conversation.
photo © Diana Rusu