BUILDING A NERVOUS SYSTEM
By Margo Jefferson
197 pages. Pantheon books. $27.
If Margo Jefferson had taken up another profession—say, furniture making—she would be the type to draw and redraw plans for a closet, build and tinker with the closet, step back to look at the closet from every angle, explore the purpose of woodworking, take a break to check out 2,000 other cabinets, then disassemble her own product and start all over with alternative tools, creating an object that no longer resembles a cabinet, but all the functions of a cabinet fulfilled in surprising ways.
Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, not a cabinetmaker (to my knowledge), but this is the spirit in which her second memoir, “Constructing a Nervous System,” continues. Her experiment is immediately effective.
The book complements Jefferson’s first memoir, “Negroland,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2016. “Negroland” told the story of growing up among Chicago’s black bourgeoisie; Jefferson’s father was a prominent physician and her mother a fashionable socialite. Margo and her sister, Denise, were sent to ballet class dressed in matching wool coats with Persian lamb collars; they mastered the orthopedically correct posture and clear speech. Balance, balance, equilibrium.
In “Negroland”, Jefferson asked, “What made and maimed me?” Her new book begins with a cross-examination of what that “I” is, and asks how to write a memoir when you’re chafing the concept of authority. Two solutions come to mind. One, go crazy. Two, redraw the boundaries of the genre. Jefferson chooses option 2, and the title of the book is a sly description of the project, where “nervous system” refers not to anatomical fibers and cells, but to the materials – “chosen, imposed, inherited, invented” – that flow into each other. to an identity. And that, with skill, can be coaxed into a story.
A quick flip through the pages can set alarm bells ringing for those afraid of italics, bold letters, capital letters, dictionary definitions, and thick quotes. But this is a book for deep immersion, not a quick flip. This is appointment reading. Clear the schedule and commit.
Giving commands like the one above is one of Jefferson’s techniques. “Read on,” she orders at one point. On another discussing Bud Powell, she insists, “Don’t feel sorry for him.” She writes in the first and second person—and also, why not, in the voice of Bing Crosby. She borrows the conceit of a forensic procedure to investigate Willa Cather’s work. There are letters, calls to action, lyrics, aphorisms, notes, unearthed journal entries, a theory of minstrels. There are excerpts from Charlotte Brontë, Katherine Mansfield, Ida B. Wells, Czeslaw Milosz; allusions to Beckett, Robert Louis Stevenson and Dante.
It takes a strong sensitivity to make all this not only coherent, but also hypnotic. Jefferson’s sensibility is one of extraordinary personal involvement with art. Yes, part of the book is a hypertextual musing on the nature of memoirs, and there’s a dusting of traditional autobiography – she writes about her father’s depression, her teaching career, a love affair – but in the dance between autobiographer and critic, the critic leads.
Early in the book, Jefferson recalls taking a handful of Ella Fitzgerald records from her parents’ collection. Raised to glorify physical impeccability, a preteen Jefferson was squeamish about seeing Fitzgerald’s “sweat and size” on album covers and TV appearances. She couldn’t reconcile the female version of the voice with the fact that Fitzgerald had functional sweat glands. Rethinking her own discomfort, Jefferson explains about the relationship between black women and sweat, labor and glamour.
These encounters with artists – Powell, Josephine Baker, Harriet Beecher Stowe and beyond – are delightful and rigorous, but punctuated by brooding and self-admonition. “I’ve reached an emotional stalemate here,” Jefferson writes, and “This confession and reckoning have exhausted me” and “STOP! Gather yourself, Professor Jefferson.” A drill sergeant has invaded the nervous system.
To come across one of these sentences is a jolt of unexpected intimacy, like looking across the street and seeing a neighbor wandering naked past the window. In “Negroland,” Jefferson wrote about the semiotics of self-presentation—how an unhydrated elbow or knee signaled deficiency, while a closet full of occasion-specific purses stood for impeccable readiness. Her nervous outbursts encourage a writing style that is equally meticulous.
I hesitate to attribute Jefferson’s examined self-consciousness entirely to gender, race, or class. All those ingredients are of great importance, but it is also true that some people are born self-conscious and some people become that way, while others never do. (We all know instances of that supernatural anomaly, the self-assured man.) I say this not to obscure the specificity of Jefferson’s life—the expression of which is the point of every memoir—but to situate it in an artistic tradition that Emily Dickinson , Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman: Relentless Self-Excavation Scrupulously Free of Solipsism.
Jefferson writes of the desire for “licence” as a young woman, dispensation to play “with styles and characters deemed beyond my reach.” She — along with other recent innovators in the mold like Carmen Maria Machado, Joy Harjo, and Maggie Nelson — grabbed that permission slip and ripped it to shreds.