Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Possible Side Effects, by Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs reads his own book in this CD edition.

I think listening to the author affects my perception of the work, and that perception is not, perhaps, as good as it might otherwise be.

Burroughs is an experienced reader, yet his technique is odd. His phrasing is out of sync with the meaning of the sentences, as he breaks where one would not normally break, emphasizes words probably not emphasized in speech. It is as if he is reading someone else's work, and for the first time.

The other book of his that I listened to was Wolf at the Table, and there is a significant difference between the two, both in the way the stories are told and in the way they are read. Wolf is the unadorned truth. No humor in it at all. It is the story of Burroughs' relationship with his father, who was a man who liked to play games with his son's head and who had little regard for the feelings or sensitivities of others. His father was a monster, and that book makes that very clear.

By contrast, Possible Side Effects is a series of stories of Burroughs' life, taken out of sequence and at times embellished as needed for comedic effect. There certainly is overlap, as they are both based on his own memories, but Side Effects is humor, even though at times a bit edgy humor.

Burroughs' reading of Wolf at the Table is unrelentingly somber, dark, and so meticulously spoken that it is as if Burroughs cannot let go of a single word without clinging to it first. I found his reading hard to take. His reading of Side Effects is lighter, even though it clearly comes from the same place. It is easier to take because he does not seem to dwell on words the same way, doesn't stretch them out until they nearly spring back. Yet the phrasing is similar, the stopping in odd places, the overall almost flat tone. In both cases he takes on the voices of other characters at times and his speech patterns and accents are very much alike in these cases, in the two books. It struck me, though, that in the case of Side Effects he does not actually speak the way these characters would have. It's disconcerting.

The stories range from all-out funny to near-yucky to creepy, frankly, and reveal inner torments underneath the humor. In these stories Burroughs talks frankly about his own physical ailments as well as mental aberrations. The stories tend to be about excess, about going too far. The times Burroughs strikes out against his parents or grandparents he does so in ways we associate with out of control juveniles. He throws the worst epithets at his hated grandmother. He single-handedly covers his childhood kitchen in flour, pots, pans, butter, meat from the freezer, and heaven knows what else. The very excess of it all is perhaps what makes it funny - as well as edgy. And it makes us wonder what it's like to be inside that head. Maybe that's why I keep coming back for more.

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