Saturday, 21 July 2012

Book review: I'm the One that I Want, Margaret Cho (2001)

I don't really know where to start with this because I enjoyed it so much - it was read in one sitting; it's just over 200 pages long - and because I think I saw quite a lot of myself in it. The book appears to have grown out of a comedy routine Cho developed in the late 90s. Since she was born in 1968 that means that by the time she emerged from the drug- and alcohol-fogged years that constitute much of the material for the book she was in her mid-30s.

One thing that middle age does for you, of course, is to allow you not to care about what other people think of you. For Cho this had always been a problem. Cho was born with three liabilities, if you believe not just her but many others who write from similar perspectives: she is a woman, she is of Asian extraction, and she is bisexual. But on top of that there is another liability that less frequently gets a mention in the public sphere, but that is no less real: she is intelligent and sensitive. The book, then, is the story of how Cho comes to terms with herself, and learns to live comfortably within her own skin. A lot of people can glom onto that story, I think.

Creative types often have difficult childhoods. It's not just their parents, it's the whole world. There's also a fair amount of score-settling here, in the vein that Sophia Coppola outlined in The Virgin Suicides. You remember that routine? The girl is seduced on a football field in the middle of the night and the guy ungallantly abandons her; she wakes up alone and cold. Cut to several years later: the guy is in a mental institution getting handed one of those pathetic little paper cups containing his daily dose of medication. Her shame leads to his shame after she "makes it". Cho's book has quite a bit of this kind of thing. But it's not the most important thing.

Cho combines good writing - some of it quite poetic; you can tell that she is making a big effort - with some pop psychology, and this is layered onto what comes out of a reliable and refreshing comedic talent. There are insights that resonated particularly closely with my own experience, and that probably cannot be described in any other way. Take this section, for example, on crushes:
I decided that I was gonne have a crush on him. Crushes allow us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as we believe the crush might.
Very often, a crush is not about the other person, but about us and how we think we are in the world. By looking at this reflection of ourselves through another person, we find a way to achieve self-love without actual self-esteem, a way to admire oneself without admitting that is what you are really doing.
Crushes are about fantasy colliding with reality, the fantasy of who we think we are matched against the reality of who we are. Other people have little to do with it.
I thought this was worth thinking about. I said to myself, "Hmm!" This had happened to me. Clearly Cho has thought about her own responses to the world in great depth. It's this thoughtful attempt to make sense of her experiences that is so attractive in the book. Sure, the comedy helps you to zoom through the pages of the book at lightening speed. But at her best Cho is deeply reflecting on who and what she is, and what that represents in the larger scheme of things. This is a considered tale.

Americans will have more of a motivation to read Cho's book because that's where her fame inheres. I only saw a TV interview with Cho posted on Facebook by a friend. After clicking and watching Cho talk on camera - looking slim and beautiful - I decided that she made a lot of sense and that I would buy one of her books. So I did. I'm glad I did, too. I think many people who are or have been confused about who they are and where they fit in the world can take away a lot from this book. The sex, drugs and alcohol might place Cho's experiences outside the boundaries that circumscribe the lives of many, but the desire for self-understanding is universal, and Cho's funny way of framing things works to facilitate an empathetic response in the reader.

Cho's experiences and her response to them naturally exist within the loci of broader issues such as prejudice, racism, media image, and the kind of public response to difference that occurs in any country and for a very many reasons. Her story is particular but she makes it general and this is her greatest achievement, so I would recommend this book to anyone who has or has had doubts about themselves. And that probably includes just about all of us.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

dear Matt, I will buy the book, hehe.