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Pretense & Sensibility 

Carolyn See on the memoir, the Age of Anxiety and our sentient universe — and her fear of sounding highfalutin.

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Carolyn See writes — in longhand! — lovely books in which terrible things happen to good people, and to bad people, and to all sorts of people, things as localized as a hit-and-run accident and as all-encompassing as the Third World War. As in the acclaimed Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, the 1995 memoir of her variously alcoholic, drug-addicted, depressed, disappointed, mutually abusive, self-destructive, giddily dysfunctional family — a book she describes as “a comedy” — they have a way of turning cheery at the finish, as tragedy works around to something like a happy ending, “which I think just means taking a longer view, making your camera go up farther.” The essence of See’s work is expressed by a character in Making History, her 1991 novel of life and death and the invisible strings that connect them: “The whole point was that you were supposed to see life, and love it too.” (Though when I mention this to the author, she reminds me of the line that follows it: “She was afraid she wasn’t going to be able to do it, not in this life.”)

Not too much too terrible happens in The Handyman, See’s latest novel — “written in a major key instead of a minor key” and recently issued in paperback by Ballantine Books — but here again order is drawn out of chaos. The story of a temporarily unaspiring artist and free-ranging fix-it man and the women he rescues from loneliness and disarray over the course of a summer — and the one who rescues him back — it’s a kind of Southern California version of Cold Comfort Farm, a coming-of-age story about people whose age has been slow in coming, and a romance novel from the point of view of the handsome stranger, as well as a kind of reminder to clean up your room. And, like her other books, it’s also about Los Angeles, her hometown, full of familiar place names and places of business, and evocative of the scattered and unhurried way we have of doing things here.

See arrives at our oceanside meeting in a blue New Beetle, a small curly-haired woman whom a passerby might register only as the grandmother she is, not as a woman who learned to write “off of negative energy — just sheer hatred and revenge.” She is pre-emptively self-critical; her word for the day is pretentious: “I don’t want to sound like a pretentious jerk,” “It sounds to me very pretentious to be making these large declarative sentences,” “I’m always writing about very pretentious subjects.” Of The Handyman, she says, “I tried very hard to make that book very simple, and I may have gone four steps too far into the simple-minded.” She says that “nobody” reads her books (“I am not above going into neighborhood libraries and seeing if people have checked them out”), but the fact is that The Handyman went into a second hardback printing within a month of its release, and as of this writing, there are 60-some mostly positive reviews of it posted on

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In that book as elsewhere, she writes plain, pre-postmodern prose, with engagement and without irony. Hers is a refreshingly excitable sensibility — she does not fear (nor overuse) the exclamation mark — and she has the strange gift for arranging mere words in an order that moves the heart; suddenly you’ll find yourself in tears. She makes literature seem useful. Of the novel as a form, See says, “I think it’s the scripture of the thinking man and woman — oh, man, talk about pretentious.”


L.A. Weekly: When you wrote your memoir, Dreaming, in which the reader may recognize the places and people of your novels, were you concerned that afterward people would say of your fiction, “Oh, she’s just writing about her life”?

Carolyn See: That’s what everybody writes about.

Not everybody gives out the key.

Oh, yeah, they do. They sort of are hoping that scholars will find out, but if they don’t, they write a memoir — think of Hemingway and A Moveable Feast. They’re putting crumbs there like Hansel and Gretel: Come on . . . This way . . .

So you basically approve of the vogue for memoirs?

I would say I’m in favor of regional literature; I’m in favor of not everything happening in New York or New England. And I think I’m in favor of memoirs for another reason, which is gender-based. And forgive me if I sound pretentious — the model for the English-American novel is a masculine model. But a lot of what women write about, there’s no model for it. So you get all these feminine models where you’re married to an idiot and then you â leave and then you call your girlfriend. And that’s the plot. And the guys’ novels are: You’re married to an idiot and then you leave and then you call your girlfriend. There aren’t plots around for women novelists to draw on, because the novels have been by guys. So memoirs are really different, they don’t fit the mold. They’re open enough that you can just write what happens. I think we get a lot of awful memoirs, but then there are some, you read them and you think, “Jeez, this is amazing.” And if it weren’t for the memoir form, it would never see print.

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