Books

Functionality from Dysfunction: A Review of Ariel Gore’s The End of Eve

When my father was dying, I accidentally gave my number to the guy who hit on me while I pumped gas into a borrowed car at the station just across the street from the hospital. I did this even though (a) I was in a committed relationship at the time, and (b) I was profoundly uninterested in the guy. But I was also out of my mind—as in, so removed from and outside of my own brain that it couldn’t work fast enough to respond in an appropriate, normal-person fashion.

He called me, promptly, maybe an hour or so later (little eager, dude?), at which point I let it go to voicemail because I was so totally embarrassed by the whole thing. Then I felt guilty about blowing the guy off, because he seemed like a nice enough guy and what if my blowing him off—which was no reflection on him, really—was like the final straw of rejection that pushed him over the line from being a nice enough guy to a completely cynical jerk? (Reminder: I was not thinking altogether clearly at this point.)

So I called the dude back, praying that it would go to voicemail, which it—small favors!—did, allowing me to leave the most ridiculous, rambling message of all time:

“Um… Hi. This is Nishta—we just met—you just called me—and I’m so sorry, I really should have said something before, but my dad is in the hospital right now and he’s really sick and I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I really need to focus on my family—now’s not the right time for me—but I really appreciate, um, you asking for my number, and it was nice to meet you—you seem really great!—and I hope you understand. I totally should have said something sooner. So, um, take care. Bye.”

While I felt like a total fool, I also felt a strange exhilaration from the doing of something ridiculous. In my journal entry from that day, this note: I feel a little bit numb and stupid right now, like get drunk—get fat—smoke a cigarette stupid, which is probably why I watched myself hand out my cell phone number to a complete stranger.

Numbness brings you right up to the cliff’s edge of the outrageous, and I was ready to drive fast, break things, get a new tattoo, throw my phone in the Mississippi River, crawl into bed with people I had no business crawling into bed with, and then run away from everything.

That same fog of uncertainty, bordering on madness, runs like a vein throughout Ariel Gore’s memoir The End of Eve. Though my story and Gore’s are so different as to almost not even warrant comparison, the thing about the death of a parent is that it’s still the death of a parent, with the psychological complications and implications that perhaps no other life event can match. Best-case scenario (mine), the hardest thing about the fact that your parent is dying is that your parent is dying. Far be it for me to call Gore’s the worst-case scenario, but I think it’s fair to at least say “worse,” the fact that your parent is dying is one among a legion of troubles, both with the dying parent and in general. Either way it will fuck with you, profoundly.

The End of Eve is a memoir about creating functionality from inside dysfunction and celebrating life in the face of death. Much like the title character, Eve—the author’s mother, whose terminal cancer diagnosis prompts the sequence of events Gore recounts—the memoir is at turns maddening, pathetic, endearing, bizarre, and, if you manage to stick with it, compelling.

The book opens with Eve announcing her illness—“It’s lung cancer”—and ends just after her death, telling a patchwork of stories in between. The book is structured, if you can call it that, in a long series of brief chapters composed of flashbacks and vignettes, and follows Gore as she, her mostly deadbeat girlfriend Sol, their son Maxito, and Gore’s daughter Maia tackle Eve’s end, and all of the drama that comes with it.

Eve’s first demand (or request, or manipulation, depending on your perspective) is for her family to get a big house together: “I can’t die on 82nd,” she pleads on the way back from her first oncologist appointment. Sol, who somehow manages to be both less likeable and less interesting than Gore’s certifiably insane mother, says she’ll agree to the move on one condition: that it’s to New Mexico.

“If I’m ever going to make a living,” she said, “it’s going to be in New Mexico.”

I tried to imagine that, Sol finally making a living.

“If I’m ever really going to be a musician,” she said, “it’s going to be in New Mexico.”… “Honestly, if you and I are ever going to have a sex life, it’s going to be in New Mexico.” She exhaled a plume of [pot] smoke toward me. “That place is the salve to my soul.”

In a fairly transparent, Chekhovian “gun-on-the-wall” manner, the reader later learns that New Mexico is not only the supposed salve to Sol’s soul, but also the location of her ex, Bipa, whose name Sol regularly mutters in her sleep. You can see where this is going, and that’s the thing—you can see where all of this is going. It’s to Gore’s credit if she gets you interested in watching it happen along the way.

I confess to knowing nothing about Gore before reading her memoir, except for the blurbs and bio pieces featured on the book’s advanced reading copy. I prefer to take books on their own terms, and then do authorial digging later, should I feel so compelled. My first impression of Gore, then, was as she described herself on the book’s opening page: “Thirty-nine years old. A homeowner and an unmarried wife. One kid in college and another in the crib.”

As the memoir unfolded, my impression of Gore at first ballooned into the caricature of a stereotypical writer: life full of unnecessary drama, functional (barely) in spite of itself. When a grown adult narrator resorts to selecting a random book from a shelf, turning to a random page, and pointing her finger at a random quotation in order to obtain life advice, I have a hard time taking that narrator seriously.

At home that night I took a random book from the shelf.

The Upanishads.

I ran my hand across the gold cover, asked:  Should I or should I not agree to live with my mother … move my family and my life … change everything?

I opened to a random page and read this: “Live with me for a year.  Then you may ask questions.”

So there it was.

From a college student, maybe I could take this as an endearing moment of honesty, but from Gore, and only about twenty-five pages in, I had to roll my eyes. Combine these moments of almost painful cliché with an unsuccessfully fragmented narrative that jumps all around through time and space, and my experience of the first two-thirds of the book was of reading a profoundly under-edited manuscript.

In this contemporary culture of blogging and status updates and immediacy, the boundaries between various forms are increasingly blurred. I, for one, welcome this opportunity for invention and creation, but perhaps it is my old-school preferences that are speaking when I say that I don’t want a book to read like a blog. Brain-on-speaker does not an engaging narrative make; I prefer some curation of thought, some censorship.

That being said, at least part of Gore’s appeal is the way that she is willing to talk about life as it is, in the real and not the ideal. She doesn’t try to make herself look good, I’ll give her that. But I would have taken more self-analysis in place of material details that don’t contribute to understanding. I don’t need to know what music is playing in the background of every scene, only the scenes where the music matters, like when Sol comes home and immediately switches the song to something she likes, an act of aggression that Gore relates repeatedly without questioning it. Those details add richness; “Amy Winehouse sang from the iPod behind me” doesn’t. Multiply that detail tenfold, and The End of Eve can start to feel a bit too much like reading a diary: powerful in its immediacy, but frustrating in its sloppy construction.

From time to time, Gore includes flashbacks that briefly shine light onto past scenes’ trauma but do not explain them, or place them in much of a context. The reader is left to decide whether or not these are meant to explain the author’s present-tense behavior, namely her seeming inability to stand up for herself in any way. This presentation-without-analysis makes it difficult to trust Gore, who displays only partial self-awareness of her ridiculousness for the majority of the memoir.

As a reader, I couldn’t help but hope that she would develop that consciousness further, that she would eventually want more for herself, and that the book would blossom beyond the “blame everything on the shit I endured in my childhood” kind of memoirs.

Thankfully, as the book progresses, Gore does step away from that territory more and more, delivering beautiful snippets of language and observation: “And in the icy light through the window above her bed, I thought maybe I was learning how to stand firm where there is no ground. Learning how to hold this sadness.”  

It is moments like these—which grow more frequent in the last third of the book—that make Gore an ultimately sympathetic narrator. She is in there, somewhere, underneath all of the bullshit and dysfunction and settling-for-what-she-can-get. And the power of her narrative lies in the fact that it is through the process of dealing with her dying, pain-in-the-ass mother, that Ariel Gore starts to get her shit together. She begins to take care of herself, not just everyone else. This is what death does. It forces you to get your priorities in order. It puts everything up for grabs, which in Gore’s case is a good thing.

“What does it mean for life to bear witness to death?” asks a friend of Gore’s, toward the end of Eve’s life. Gore learns, as I learned, that this meaning, like all of our meanings, is constructed; it’s made up. And that she, as author, as creator, has a choice about how she is going to be—what she will say and what she won’t, what she’ll tolerate and what she won’t, whom she’ll sleep with, how she’ll mark her body and how she’ll mark this time.

Behave in a way you’re going to be proud of, she writes on her wrist. The simple agency of this moment—a human being trying to be good—feels universally poignant and almost heartbreakingly endearing. “You can do this,” you want to tell her. You can do this. Because if Gore has a choice about how she’ll behave—even in the face of some of the toughest shit life can throw at a person—then we all do. And if she can manage to be good, then maybe so can we.

Nishta Mehra is a writer, middle school English teacher, and enthusiastic home cook who blogs about food and life at www.bluejeangourmet.com. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona, her first book, a collection of essays entitled The Pomegranate King, was published in June 2013. She lives with her partner, Jill Carroll, and their son, Shiv, in a suburb of Houston, Texas.