I never read the same book twice, but this is my third, or fourth, reading of Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face. Joyce Carol Oates may yammer on, in fictional terms, about her characters finding their one true thing, but for every David Bowie there’s millions of Davie Bowieless strumming a guitar and never making anything of their life or art. There’s more writers than people with cancer. One reading of these books (and there are many ways of viewing them) is these books are about the common bond of two established writers. Ann Patchett describes herself in Truth & Beauty as the ant, grinding out word after word, fictional page after page, while Grealy was the grasshopper jumping from brilliant idea to brilliant idea. A greater difference has to do with money and security and where they’ve come from. Grealy picks up on that fundamental class difference:
‘The difference isn’t who has what in their checking account,’ she said. ‘The difference is the safety net. If you bottom out, you have people who’ll rescue you. If I bottom out, it’s free fall.’
I shook my head. ‘That’s completely stupid. You have the exact same safety net that I do. You have me.’
Elsewhere Patchett decribes Grealy as a ‘firefly’. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, in her Neopolitan novels focus is on such an intense and lifelong friendship, and on Lena, who burns brightest and longest in their corner of the world, which could be transported to 1985 and Iowa City, where the two twenty-one year old, former Sarah Lawrence undergraduate students, now share a house and teach writing classes at graduate school and learn, ostensibly, to polish their own writing. But Patchett describes the move as more a holding operation, before real life starts. They leave Iowa behind, but take their friendship and love with them. Patchett acting as Grealy’s North Star, always there for her true friend, and for the next twenty years, until Grealy’s death of a heroin overdose, offering a place to find her way home.
One of the things I found was I’d read Patchett’s book on Truth and Beauty before, which was a surprise to me. I guess the title comes from John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, and there is great beauty in Pratchett’s book, but memory fades. I laughed at Patchett and Grealy’s attempt, well, largely Grealy’s attempt, whilst dragging Patchett along, to make Ohio into the equivalent of 1930s ‘La Boheme’ Paris. Dancing in the kitchen for hours. Lucy moved like water, Patchett tells the reader, while I hung against the wall. It’s such a great descriptive phrase she uses it a few other times. The music was so loud and ‘they laughed so hard, our neighbor Nancy had no choice but to come over and dance with us for a while’. Grealy, finally, loses her virginity, aged 22, and Patchett says she has more sex than all of their friends put together, but was always waiting for that one true person that would love her for herself and see beyond her lack of a jaw.
After being diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma (with a less than five-percent prognosis of staying alive) Grealy was always waiting for life to start. Thirty-nine operation to fix her face and to fix her life. But Grealy, writing about her face, Pratchett wrote, ‘felt like she had just slipped a knife into the ground and sliced open a diamond mine.’ She goes on to say, ‘the writing was stunning, better than her best poems.’ Poets often make the best fiction and non-fiction writers and Grealy saw herself at this time as a poet. That’s what gave her identity, who she was and what she was. ‘Not only had she found her story,’ says Patchett, ‘she had found all the room that prose allows. Her life was no longer a metaphor for something else.’
Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others suggest that this ‘ “We”- this “we” is everyone who has never experienced what they went through- don’t understand. We truly don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like…and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine.’
Grealy’s great gift is she takes the reader straight there. Language matters. She didn’t want to be known for her face and lack of a jawbone. She wanted to be known for her art. Her luck. Her magic. Her charmed life. Or charmed lives, each one larger than the one before. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is a truly wondrous book, one of the books I’d like to think most people would read in their lifetime. Beauty & Truth plays John the Bapitist to Grealy’s life and Christ-like suffering and the great joy she brought to the page and to the literary life ever after.