By Tyler Mendelsohn
Ink Press Productions, 2019
$25.00, 120 pages
Review by Maria C. Goodson
What can memoirs do?
Ever since I finished reading Laurel by Tyler Mendelsohn, that question has been stuck in my head, like a song lyric or the last thing a friend said to me before a long absence.
It’s a question I ask because Laurel does so much. To begin with, its construction brought me great joy. Laurel is a handmade book, lovingly designed and put together by Ink Press Productions. For me, handmade books usually bring more sensory pleasure to the reading experience and this book is no different. The cover is beautiful to look at and touch (lovely thick paper, varied weights, colors, and styles throughout), and flipping through it you find there are translucent elements on every page, either in the designs of each chapter title, their letters mirroring themselves, or the see-through pages scattered throughout. There is a ghost quote on the back, becoming clear only when the light catches it just right, lying just perfectly in the already luminous cover design: trees, water, sunset blues, and purples hugging the title and author. This is a gorgeous book before you even read a word. But then you do, and it gets even better.
The first line of the book is “I believe there is nothing beyond this life, and I believe in ghosts.” Ghosts are a prevalent theme in the book, and like ghosts haunt its pages, this sentence haunted me.
I have a friend who is agender. We’ve talked about how in some ways our gender is similar — not falling within the binary — and in some ways it’s opposite. They have no gender. I am full of gender. When I was first figuring that out, on some level, I thought it was another one of my excesses. I was afraid of my gender’s expansiveness. I didn’t realize I was becoming my whole self.
This book is a structured stream of consciousness story about so many things, about ghosts, names, language, addiction, family, non-binary identity, self-love, and numbers. Mendelsohn weaves their narrative out of short anecdotes on a topic, bullet-pointed lists, a letter to their departed grandmother, and passages that punch like poetry. There are so many one-liners in this book, leaving your memory tattooed with sentences like flowers dug into the skin.
Mendelsohn does not just talk about feelings, but also what they did about it: their desire to drink after they quit drinking, wanting to be a part of the excitement and chaos again, their grief over their grandmother’s passing, missing someone so much you want them to haunt you. They read books. They talk to their family and partner (with intention, told particular people first, second, third). They set deadlines for their sobriety. They write letters to their departed grandmother. They use the idea of ghosts as a coping mechanism. This memoir is running, clutching the feelings of a person like a baton and leaping over life’s obstacles, but only long enough to show us what they choose to do about it.
“In a way, it’s harder to talk about feelings as an adult. You’re more aware of nuanced emotions, which are harder to articulate than ‘I’m mad’ or ‘I’m sad.’ On the other hand, I guess it’s hard to talk about feelings as a kid, too; I did it through plastic foosball players.”
Mentions of Mendelsohn’s grandmother hit me the hardest. In a book full of feelings, these ones made my heart the most full. I am not exaggerating when I say that the last page made me cry: I am ordering my grandmother’s flowers as we speak.
“With poetry, you don’t have to have a straight narrative. I confess this is another reason I’m writing to you, Nanny. I can write forever and it won’t have to be some neat story. You never required neat stories. You would be so happy I wrote to you.”
The book ends with footnotes, citing sources and places for further reading and exploration from topics mentioned in the book. So even when the story is over, the book keeps going beyond its pages. In a book, I normally would not put so much importance on footnotes, but in Laurel, I feel like it makes even more sense than just a place to cite sources. Laurel is a love story to life, and to us, the reader, and the footnotes section, to me, reinforces how much this book, via its author, wants us all to learn and be okay.
Fiction challenges us, poetry is lyrical lifeblood, but memoirs hold a special place in the world of literature. Each genre is important, each a puzzle piece keeping the world of books and art together, and I think I’ve finally figured out what role memoirs play in this literary system: they give you a beautiful insight into a real-life that is not your own and give us ideas about how to walk through our own too.