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Scraping by in the Big Eighties

November 22, 2012

By Alice Robinson


I know it sounds rather insular to say so, but I just don’t care for politics. Which isn’t to say that I’m not political. I just find electoral politics a bit deathly. I was probably a bit slow to come to nonfiction books for the same reasons that I find listening to politicians speak – and watching the news – tedious. It’s a deep and abiding fear of all those dry facts. A fear of being bored. I once argued heatedly with a friend who went on to work in Canberra that the personal is more interesting (I believe I went as far as to say it is more important, too) than the political. What I was driving at, the basis of my argument, was that I would much rather read about a family’s or individual’s experience under the Khmer Rouge, or in Hitler’s Germany, or post 9/11 or during the Great Depression than I would read or listen to an overview of the politics of each situation. I find the domestic, personal, human narratives of each circumstance far more engaging and illuminating, far more telling of the bigger political picture, than the other way around. (I know this is not necessarily a popular view. My husband for example disagrees, but he reads what I call “boring books”). Perhaps my proclivity towards certain kinds of narratives, certain ways of talking about the world, is to be expected; I’ve founded my life in receiving and absorbing human stories, in emotion, inner lives and thoughts. For much of my life I’ve gleaned these through fiction. There is a richness there, a lusciousness, that I don’t find in, say, in political analysis and agenda. I was afraid of missing such lusciousness in nonfiction writing too. Perhaps reading all those brittle text books in high school, yawning all the while, set up particular expectations about what nonfiction could be. I know better now. In fact, when I look back over my reading of the recent past, a majority of it has been not fiction, but nonfiction, namely memoir. It stands however that the nonfiction I love the most is work that combines all the richness of fiction writing with narratives of real lives. I’ve written extensively about the ways in which, for example, This American Life manages this combination so masterfully, and I wager that most successful memoirs and biographies do the same. Natalia Rachel Singer’s 2004 memoirScraping by in the Big Eighties certainly does, although I admit I was worried about the book to begin with, due to the fears and biases I’ve outlined above. Was I really going to read a book about the Regan era in America? Could I stomach all the politics? I needn’t have worried. Singer sets out to do something wonderful, delightful, something that ultimately accords not only with the kind of reading experience I enjoy most, but with my attitude to politics. In this funny, fascinating memoir, Singer highlights the intersections between the personal and political, arguing that the personal is political, deeply so. Feminist Carol Hanisch wasn’t necessarily referring to electoral politics when her paper The Personal is Political was published in 1970, but what I like about Singer’s work is that it demonstrates how electoral politics are personal – they impact citizens after all – as well as how the lived experience can be political. She shows how the two relate to one another across as life.

I began to suspect on the very first page that perhaps I had the wrong end of the stick when it came to Scraping by in the Big Eighties. Singer’s prose is so funny and self-depricating, not at all what I feared a book set against a decade of severe Reganomics might sound like. Opening with a description of her arrival in Seattle in 1979, on the run from what she believes to be the follies of the goal-orientated life she has been taught to desire, Singer writes on page one:

To our left on the front porch, a balding, blond man in his late twenties was sprawled out in a hammock reading a book called Life After Death. I half hoped he’d leap up to help us move in, but he stayed horizontal….Having denounced the Midwesterners of my past and their colour schemes – my mad mother in Cleveland (polyester stretch pants in red), our career-obsessed classmates at Northwestern (crew-neck sweaters in navy, tray, or pastel) – I could learn to like purple if it would help me mellow out. That was exactly what I’d moved out west to do.

The book continues like this throughout: acutely observed, humorous, at times poignant, even sad. Ultimately it is the host of weird and wonderful characters (Singer included) that make the memoir so pleasurable to read. There are plenty of them, each a little stranger than the one that came before. There is no doubt that Singer’s young adulthood was eventful, if not a little bit misguided and difficult, as most tend to be.

Scraping by in the Big Eighties is an account of the somewhat tortured decade Singer spends heartily trying to ‘mellow out’, to change, to leave behind her troubled suburban childhood – and in particular her mentally ill, abusive, controlling mother – and become a better person living a better life. This journey leads her to a variety of dead-end jobs, astrology classes, disturbed housemates, problematic lovers, aerobics classes and encounters with counter-cultural world-views across the States, Mexico and France. While Singer tries valiantly to find her place, to escape her past and to do some good honest writing – as she imagines the new and improved version of herself would in the best of circumstances – what she ultimately finds is that everywhere we go, we unfortunately take ourselves along for the ride. A location or vocation may be changed, but the person engaging with each, at the core, frustratingly remains the person they have always been.

Singer’s pilgrimage of self-improvement, an often painful journey, plays out against Regan’s reign over the nation, although this is not so much a book about the many ways Regan screwed the nation’s needy in favour of supporting the already wealthy – at least, that is only part of the story Singer tells – as much as it is about the relationships between Singer’s personal experiences and the experiences of her nation during this particularly dark political period. Other reviewers have criticised this aspect of the book, arguing that the relationships between Singer’s personal story and the nation’s political narrative are unclear, perhaps unnecessary. I disagree. Not only does Regan’s reign provide a firm structure against which Singer can contextualise her own story, but in presenting the two disparate narratives together, they serve to illuminate one another, demonstrating the many ways in which they are not disparate at all, but intertwined. That is, Singer’s past – and so her self – has been profoundly shaped by access to many of the services Regan’s administration does away with, just as her burgeoning politicisation in adulthood is shaped by the very awareness of this fact.

I began to think about all the other ways beyond immediate survival that the War on Poverty had sustained me in my childhood: the well-stocked public libraries…the school trips to see Shakespeare and hear Motzart performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, paid for in full by federal arts programs; the free Cleveland Art Museum…Without all this I would have never caught a glimpse of the beauty to be found beyond the peeling walls of our cramped basement apartment, the enduring human values that ultimately saved my life…Although Regan insisted these cuts wouldn’t “hurt the poor”, 70 percent came fro programs that supported the poor. With one stroke of the pen, almost every social service that had sustained me or people I’d known was cut back sharply or disappeared.

As a moment of particular political power, this period sees, as Singer and many of her friends and acquaintances perceive it, a sharp decline in the quality of life for many Americans, the degradation of many of the social structures that make the nation great. It is a period clouded by a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness – one that has been, unfortunately, all too familiar to those who endured the terms of George W. in America and John Howard in Australia. In this respect, Singer’s political commentary is not only of a time, but eerily contemporary too.

There is a lot to like about this memoir, particularly the captivating writing. Despite myself, I ripped through Scraping by in the Big Eighties in a few short days, could hardly put it down. Thanks to Singer, I might just have to change my tune about politics after all.

Natalia Rachel Singer will be speaking at NonfictioNow alongside Robin Hemley and Australian crime writer Peter Doyle on Thursday 22nd of November.

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