Angela’s Ashes

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourtThere is something particularly odd about finishing off A Million Little Pieces and then delving directly into Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

These books would, after all, appear to have a fair bit in common. Both are (supposed) memoirs and, more importantly, both narratives are pinned on the life-destroying power of addiction as a central and pervasive theme. The key differences, of course, are that Angela’s Ashes is a real memoir, tells a story with a much broader scope, and is extremely well-written. There’s a reason why McCourt received a Pulitzer Prize, while Frey got a spanking from Oprah on national television.

One thing this book isn’t (and again I can’t help but keep contrasting it with A Million Little Pieces), is sensational. This is not the kind of story that builds to a major event or climax of mounting tension. Instead, it much more closely mimics the experience of a real (if often tragic) life: McCourt’s story is the cumulative tone of years of experiences. And unlike Frey, McCourt’s avatar doesn’t indulge in meta-textual navel-gazing or reflection: he shares his experiences without retrospective analysis or commentary. Which is all to say: Angela’s Ashes is a much better book than A Million Little Pieces, in just about every way.

Which may actually be the reason that I have very little to say about it. My lingering response to the story is what is most surprising to me. Overwhelmingly, my fading impression of the story is an emotional reaction: anger and frustration on behalf of young McCourt, his siblings, and the eponymous Angela.

Unlike some of my highschool classmates, I was able to wrap my head around the fact that Tess (of the D’Urbervilles) wasn’t weak or pathetic for resigning herself to the only fate available to a woman in her circumstances and her historical context. And yet, I found it hard to shift into the historical paradigm of Angela’s Ashes.

A Million Little Pieces was, to a large extent, about faux-Frey’s frustration with the contemporary understanding of addiction: the addiction-as-disease context that he contemptuously and superiorly dismisses as an abdication of personal responsibility and accountability. On that flip side, Angela’s Ashes takes the reader back to the Depression, and a cultural atmosphere where there wasn’t really a concept of addiction at all. Dismissed in New York as a typical drunken Irishman and in Limerick as a typical drunken Northerner, people of his time could readily process that Malachy was so helplessly dependent on alcohol that his family was literally starving to death, but couldn’t fathom that anything other than personal weakness was responsible. This contrast between the two books is, perhaps, the hinge-point on which all discussion of addiction is hung: the line between what is and isn’t within an individual’s control.

Another throughline in the story is that people are, more often than not, unredeemable jerks. The rich look down on the poor, the poor look down on the poorer, the poorer look down on the equally-poor-but-for-different-reasons, and apparently in times of overwhelming poverty, not only do the have-nots circle the wagons, but the vast majority of people take a kind of perverse pleasure in the suffering of those around them. Certainly sympathy and empathy are in short stock, power is almost always abused (especially by those with only small amounts of power), and people would rather find a reason to blame the victim than do even the tiniest thing to help.

Is it an unfair assessment of human nature? Probably not entirely. But it certainly gets exhausting.

Before the Depression, both religious and political ideology in the west relied on a belief in providence and meritocracy — the poor were poor because of various inferiorities, and people ultimately get what they “deserve”. Not that these concepts aren’t still pervasive in western cultures, but it probably took something as economically cataclysmic as the Depression to level the playing field and open people to the possibility that things weren’t so cut and dry: that other systems are at play or, at the very least, that perhaps society should attempt to insulate children from the so-called failings of their parents.

None of which is hugely relevant to Angela’s Ashes, which is crafted to transparently depict how McCourt felt about his life and his father growing up: not what he should of felt; or how his family should have been treated; or how he feels about it all in retrospect. Any manipulation of the reader’s empathy is far more subtle than that. And maybe far more successful for that subtlety: The more young McCourt naively accepted the life he had been born into, the more incensed I felt on his behalf. And while it was a good book, I can’t really say I enjoyed reading it: the emotional response it elicited was strong and overwhelmingly negative.

From the archives, written — somewhat aptly, given McCourt’s nigh-idyllic memories of poverty in America in contrast with the nightmare of poverty Ireland –on July 4th of 2006.

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