Wednesday, August 27, 2014

One More Theory About Happiness by Peter Guest

When Peter Guest was only twelve years old, he was riding a borrowed bike which he belatedly discovered did not have working brakes.  The accident that followed resulted in a cervical break and months of hospitalization as doctors tried to mend his broken body. 

One More Theory About Happiness reads like a novel, offering a lot of insight into what it was like for the author to go through the physical trauma not only of the accident but all that followed.  Through his often poetic prose, the reader becomes intimate with the isolation that comes with paralysis, the embarrassment of relying upon the kindness of others, including strangers, and the complications that come with being in a wheelchair. 

The memoir falls short only because the reader never gets to know anyone else in the book.  We know he has parents and siblings but know little about them by the time the book is done.  The same holds true for the other patients in the hospital where Guest spends many months.  There are other characters who enter the story but remain as two dimensional as the page upon which they appear.  Only Guest himself is fully realized, showing he can write honestly. I would guess that he hesitated to write about others to protect their privacy.  The other possibility, of course, is that he himself never connected closely with any of the people in his life, withdrawn into his own experience as much as he is within his own body. 

There are other things he seems to avoid as well.  The book begins with his explaining he was raised in a Christian home but he never explores how the accident affects his faith.  There is no anger so much as a tolerant acceptance, a coming to terms with the implications of his life.  In fairness, perhaps he never struggled with the things one would imagine a twelve-year-old boy would rage against.  Not everyone’s experience will be the same, after all, but I found the lack of any real passion—anger, depression, or any of the other expected emotions—off-putting.  I came to learn Guest’s story but remained unsure that I knew him. 

This isn’t the first memoir like this I’ve read.  Happy by Alex Lemon covers similar territory, while being honest about his fears, his anger, his hopes, all without vilifying those around him.  Perhaps his book was not as easy to read as Guest’s.  Still, I appreciated the more complicated story Lemon offered if only because the spectrum of emotions allowed me to believe I’d gotten to know the author and, with Peter Guest, I never felt fully connected with anyone in his story, including the author himself.

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