The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson
In short: I think this ranks as one of the best memoirs to come out of the South in some time. I’ve been waiting for someone to use the Katrina timeline to truly tell of the pain and random brutality that is so normalized here that it is often clichéd in the retelling. Gisleson’s take on New Orleans life is important in that she is a native of the city and it has been my experience that that is a too-small group writing about New Orleans in recent years. Her tender and often witty memoir frames how the city shapes – and sometimes breaks – family and friends, leaving the survivors to live with the absurdity of existence where most of one’s day is wrapped up in the trivial even as the tragic stays near, ready to overwhelm one’s own thoughts and fears when the night falls. Or, when tragedy is made personal via the faces or actions of the other souls that populate the city, sitting on bar stools at breakfast time or dancing for tips on Bourbon Street.
As a writer, she knows she will write about her family tragedies and confesses that her father told her at his regular lunch spot at the Rib Room that he would stop talking to her if she did. Just like most Southern daughters would, she simply waited until he passed to do so. His story is a big part of this book, as his personality and aspirations defined the family life even though he kept his own set of secrets that were only been partially glimpsed then or understood by his children to this day.
The overt search for meaning in the post-Katrina era is captured by the group of friends who begin to meet as the Existential Crisis Reading Group. Gisleson offers entertaining descriptions of the attendees, and what they offer each other in terms of solace or clarity but the moments of her solitary musings about her family, her own history, and the city are what make this memoir. While discussing Borowski’s 1946 painful short stories “This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” (inspired by his own concentration camp experience) she makes an excuse to take her son to bed so she could escape the room to instead lie in the dark with him sleeping next to her, looking and listening through the open transom, illustrating her momentary discomfort at sharing high emotion over what has been lost, what is still not absorbed and her own part in it all. Even though slightly removed, the presence of friends comforts and the house with its mark of previous generations who lived there before – some successfully- quiets her unease. That was a passage I returned to again and again, feeling she had captured one moment of the sweetly painful experience of life here in our land of misrule.
Her discomfort is partly because of her survivor’s guilt and from the realization that the family tragedies may have helped she and her remaining siblings make a more emphatic mark in the world. Suicide is a confounding subject for survivors, searching for meaning in the trivial things left, never knowing what had mattered, what had helped and what had hurt.
Not surprisingly, essayist Joan Didion, author of the brilliant book about her own family tragedies in “The Year of Magical Thinking” is mentioned; Gisleson considers Didion’s defense of writing painful truths about other people as “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” and originally dismisses it. Then, as she realizes her own urgent need to tell these stories she concludes that Didion may be right after all. And that addressing the murky emotions that people live with after horrible things happen is the furthest thing from futility and instead, is pretty close to transcendence which may lead, finally, to peace.