From Whitney’s Shelf: Angela’s Ashes

Angela’s Ashes
by Frank McCourt

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

McCourt is at least up front about what you’ll read in his memoir, and miserable is exactly what it looks like. Angela’s Ashes has been out so long now (8 whole years ago! People still read newspapers then!) that I feel a little ridiculous commenting on it now. Like I’ve shown up to the New Year’s party at 2 am. But who cares? I’m still ready to party. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Anyway, Angela’s Ashes is McCourt’s memoir of his childhood in Ireland, starting at conception (in New York City) and ending with his leaving again for New York at the end of the book. So there’s a comfortable circularity about his memoir. He doesn’t pretend to be original or unique, but feels his story is worth sharing all the same. There’s a sense that everything that’s happened to him has happened to thousands of others, and will happen to thousands more. That doesn’t lessen the nostalgic tragedy of his childhood any. In fact, McCourt situates himself as a kind of Every-Irishman, a “This Could Have Been You, And If It Wasn’t, It Was Probably Your Cousin” kind of story. McCourt is an excellent storyteller, and his writing is superb, and the memoir itself is fascinating. However, I was left feeling unsettled–which probably means I have a soul. McCourt’s tone is both jocular and mournful, the kind of crying that looks like laughing. And there were plenty of points throughout the book when I did, in fact, laugh out loud– and then was instantly jabbed by guilt. I’m told (thanks Shanna!) that this kind of unsettling humor is common in Irish lit, and smarter, better-read people than I am could perhaps talk more about why that is, and what that may suggest about Irish culture. All I know is– whoa, man. That’s messed up. (Smarter people, or AP students, could maybe talk intelligently about the meaning of title and how it relates to the overall theme of the memoir, but I just can’t.)

I asked Whitney for her thoughts on the book, having reread it now. She says, “The only thing I thought about it was that I liked it so much better the first time. I think then that it seemed like nothing else I had read. I don’t know if I was naive at the time, or if it was genuinely something new in the way he told his story. And now maybe I am less naive so it didn’t strike me the same way it did before.” I think (having read it only once) that McCourt’s narrative voice is utterly unique, but it can be a little tiring after 100 pages or so. I don’t doubt that McCourt really did experience all he describes, but after a while it starts to feel a little like a tour through every Dickensian misfortune, if Dickens had been Irish, and written 100 years later. Also, the last ten years have seen a lot of “quirky” memoirs– David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Sloane Crosley, etc.– and I think McCourt can kind of be seen that way. I don’t think “quirky” is the right word for McCourt, and I think McCourt is writing just a little before any of these authors really took off, but I think that may kind of explain why this book may feel less surprising or unique than it used to, and therefore why it might be more enjoyable (if watching a car wreck is enjoyable) the first time through.

How about the rest of you? Anyone else read Angela’s Ashes before? I think it’s definitely, absolutely worth reading. The only obscenity in it (since many of my readers use that as a litmus test for whether they will or will not read a book) is the obscenity of the degrading effects of poverty, alcoholism, and oppression. And while entertaining, it’s not comfortable reading at all.

Let me know what you think. I feel like I need an expert to decode it a little more for me.


2 thoughts on “From Whitney’s Shelf: Angela’s Ashes

  1. If people need to be smarter than you to delve into this book, then I’m afraid you’ve officially scared me off.

    Maybe I’ll give it a try someday, but for now I don’t think my brain could handle it.

    1. Oh, no. I think there’s plenty to get out of it pretty easily, I just think there’s more there for people who are interested in delving deeper. And I think I don’t have the energy or expertise for that. Please do give it a try some time!

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