Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: The Measure of a Man

[JJ Lee. The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011.]

The Measure of a Man is a delightful, well-written memoir about a man, the family he grew up in, and clothes.

There are a number of different ways I could approach this book -- ways I could talk about it and about me and about connection between us, thereby saying something (hopefully) useful about both. I could, for instance, talk about clothes, an important element of the memoir. It concentrates particularly on suits -- their history, how they are made, the details of their aesthetic and their meaning. Lee, a trained architect and a freelance fashion writer, frames the book in part through his apprenticeship with the last real tailor in Chinatown in Vancouver as well as through his extracurricular efforts to remake for himself the only suit he owns that had once belonged to his now-deceased father.

Clothes are not necessarily a great fit as a way for me to talk about the book, however. While I wear clothes -- every day, in fact -- I don't think about them much, while Lee evidently thinks about them a great deal. He cares, he notices meaning, he lavishes attention on subtleties. This actually was one of the things that made it an interesting book for me to read: I often quite like books in which some previously obscure-to-me topic is opened up through an author's passion and intelligence and enthusiastic consideration. Still, I've only owned one suit in my entire life, and the barely post-teen waistline it was meant to accommodate is a thing of the distant past. It was inexpensive, double-breasted, blue, and I remember little else about it other than a few images of going with my own father to a reputable tailor shop in a town an hour or two away to obtain it. This lack of memory of the suit is in part not about forgetting, for I do remember it, but rather about having no language of my own for the details of suits. I have a certain ambivalent appreciation for their aesthetic and a sense of their entanglement with masculinities, though, in both appealing and dubious ways. In the right mood, in the right moment, I can even see suits as enticing, but more often I'm faintly repelled by them, or at least by the thought of having to wear one myself. It is a long time since I have worked a job for which a suit would be even vaguely appropriate, let alone mandatory, and such employment seems unlikely in the future too. Even the last time I bought a pair of good, new dress pants was an extremely anxious endeavour for me, and one I've managed to avoid since by buying not-quite-dress pants or by buying used ones. Which, I realize, makes no sense at all. Overall, my own default mode of relating to the sartorial is -- and this is a line I've used many times over a lot of years -- to find a line of best fit between minimum effort and minimum chance of being noticed, though I do occasionally make aesthetic choices on the basis of entirely different logics.

All of which is to say that I enjoyed the thoughtful attention to clothing in this book, but not because it is particularly a point of identification for me. There are other areas, however, where the author and I have more in common. For instance, all of us are profoundly shaped in good ways and bad by our experiences of our parents (where "parents" should be understood with no presumption about biology, presence/absence, gender, or number, and perhaps is more accurately captured by a phrase like "the parent function.") Of course, there's nothing terribly original about a parent-focused memoir, but I suppose that is because they continue to appeal to readers. And it was certainly interesting and useful for me to read this one, because there were more aspects than I care to name (though definitely far from all) of Lee's stories of challenges in his family of origin that resonated for me, albeit recombined with very different experiences of timing, class, migration, racialization, and trajectory.

Another way I might approach writing about this book is through talking about the act of writing itself. Both its author and I are writers, after all. He is, in fact, a very good one, and reading the work of a very good writer is always both a pleasure and an education, whatever the book is about. In addition, I have developed something of an interest in writing a particular kind of memoir in recent years, or at least writing that draws upon elements of memoir as a resource even if the finished product is not necessarily or exactly a memoir. My purpose for doing so is a bit different than his, in that I think starting from experience is an important way to figure out and talk about the social world. Which I suppose in certain respects Lee does, but it is more questions of power and struggle that interest me, as in the excellent memoir I reviewed here. Still, this book does connect self to certain aspects of the social through attention to clothing and to family, even it isn't necessarily all of the same aspects that would be my primary interest, and it does it well, so I'm happy to have had the chance to learn from it.

One particular aspect of Lee's writing that is worth mentioning is his skill as a practitioner of the art of the well-chosen detail. There are lots of books about writing that emphasize that the timely deployment of a well-chosen, concrete detail is essential to the craft. However, lots of people who take that advice to heart -- including people who publish regularly, including even one prominent writing/creativity teacher whose work I find quite useful in other respects -- implement it very badly. You are left with the bad taste of interrupted flow, of trying too hard, of cutesy-ness, of posing, or of inauthenticity rather than being pulled into the story the author is trying to tell. Lee, on the other hand, is very good at it. It's not that he never flirts with the over-the-topness that devotion to the well-chosen detail can produce, but you get the sense that he knows exactly what he is doing and that his moves towards excess are deliberate and carefully planned as part of the overall rhythm of the work.

A final way I could write about this book in ways that connect what it says with who I am is to reflect upon the question of self-disclosure. It is one of the key elements of memoir and something I find personally very difficult even at the most everyday level. There are people I have met through their writing and people I know in real life whose ability to lay out in text or in conversation who they are and what they're up to, warts and all, I really admire, particularly as someone who often stumbles over answering questions as simple as "How are you today?". And in these people, it is not about "overshare," it is not about about poor boundaries, and it is definitely not about inattention to their own emotional and personal safety. It's about a kind of groundedness in self. This book is not necessarily the most striking example I have encountered of such groundedness, probably because the kinds of reflections Lee seems interested in have certain kinds of limits, but it is far more than I could comfortably manage.

Add into this that my politics and my understanding of how we know the social world both place a great deal of emphasis on experience as an important element. I should add that this is experience as a source of grounding and a starting place, and is not meant as endorsement of a way of relating to experience that essentializes it, fetishizes it, disembeds it from social relations, or limits our understanding to the specific and the local. Rather, it is a recognition that our experience of the social is all we have as a starting point from which to know the world (for all that this can happen and be extended in a variety of ways). Whether we deny or embrace this grounding of knowledge production in experience, all politics must flow from it and therefore somehow relate to experience. I believe that we can do a better job of understanding ourselves and understanding the social world of which we are a part, and a better job of acting to create change, if we make that grounding in experience an explicit part of how we think about and do things.

So if you juxtapose this kind of political and epistemological commitment with the fact of being a writer and also with the fact of having a far-from-trivial difficulty in talking about one's own experience (especially in some areas, but often those are areas that matter to the kinds of writing I do), it results in, to borrow a multi-purpose euphemism from the Scottish side of the family, "a wee problem." I'm working on figuring out how to navigate these contradictory pressures as I get ready to launch one pair of books and ponder future writing projects. And if reading brave and well-done and fascinating examples of judicious revelation of self in the service of producing knowledge and producing writing doesn't solve my dilemma for me, it at least offers inspiration and example that I can take up and use along the way.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here. To learn about Scott's forthcoming books on Canadian social movement history, click here.]

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