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Autobiography of a Pain in the Neck

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO LIVE NOW
By Meredith Maran
Bantam

Before picking up this book I'd never heard of Meredith Maran, although I might well have met her and would be surprised if I don't know someone who remembers her all too well. A sometime journalist of low-profile byline, she's not the kind of 43-year-old who ordinarily gets a $75,000 advance for an autobiography, which may be why she's so gauche as to reveal that handsome if hardly precedent-setting figure. Well, good for her--Maran believes in letting it all hang out, and her unexpectedly compelling book would lose most of its charm if she didn't.

Her commercial angle is that increasingly mystified historical concept referred to by true believers and their equally credulous opposite numbers as "the '60s." Born toward the young end of the baby-boomer generation, Maran was precocious, organizing antiwar marches at the Bronx High School of Science when she was 15. Over the next 25 years she would hang out on the Lower East Side, help build a commune near Taos, join the Berkeley Women's Health Collective, put in nearly a decade of Marxist union organizing with the October League and a San Jose community group. She would work on an assembly line and in a sex shop, for Banana Republic and Smith & Hawken and Working Assets. She would do considerable pot and acid, try kundalini yoga and Zen and co-counseling and icky-sounding New Age meditation techniques and even the Judaism she was born to, experiment with holistic therapies and turn to vegetarianism, undergo an abortion and a lumpectomy and years of infertility treatment, see dear friends through infertility and cancer and AIDS, and undergo $35,000 worth of psychotherapy. She would marry and bear two now-teenaged sons, then discover that she preferred the other half of her avowed bisexuality in a 10-years-and-counting relationship with a woman who shares the mortgage on a house in the black-bohemian Oakland flats but not necessarily the waterbed, not every night--they both still need their own space.

As full as this resume is, it's not off the curve--"the Sixties" did indeed produce lives like this, and Maran's warm, breezy, efficient prose makes that life seem quite logical in its way. I only wish I could force Sixties-haters incensed by Heather Has Two Mommies to read her account of family life, although maybe they'd think she makes it sound too much like fun--the loving enthusiasm with which this unathletic lesbian yogurt eater nurtures the two heterosexual jocks she conceived so onerously is summed up by the birthday celebration in which one gets to tank up at every fast-food chain he desires between Oakland and their weekend cabin. In fact, it's not as a "Sixties" book that What It's Like To Live Now wields its strongest appeal, but as the testament of an autobiographer who is neither famous nor literary. On its eccentric terms Maran's is an ordinary life, and Maran herself a familiar type of the sort that makes most people's alarms go off. It's fascinating, and heartening, to get inside her.

Maran never comes out and says she's hell on wheels, probably because after all that therapy she still hasn't quite figured it out. But she's explicit enough about her moodiness and her neediness, the storm-tossed emotions that are the unquestioned ground of her presumptively logical life, to make clear that she's one of those people who not only needs her own space but takes up more than a fair share of everybody else's. This quality is called charisma in the famous and shrugged off with a what-can-you-do? in the powerful. In ordinary folks like Meredith Maran, however, it's deeply resented outside of a small circle of friends. Unintentionally, I believe, What It's Like To Live Now functions as a convincing defense of this character formation. Meredith Maran may be a pain in the neck sometimes. But she's nice! She's funny! She's smart! And she has far more perspective on herself than her self-centered self-righteousness would lead you to think.

And this perhaps is why Maran deserves to represent the decade that would be better off not knowing its name. While she presents her life as one of a million Sixties stories, her long involvement with Marxism renders her highly unusual, no matter what you hear from that pretentious history teacher turned Speaker of the House. Most habitués of the "counter-culture," who themselves never comprised a majority of American youth in any matter that went deeper than hairstyle, were reflexively antiwar, confused if well-meaning about race, and basically individualist in political philosophy. For one of their number to leave the essential qualification "For Me" out of the title What It's Like To Live Now is typical self-aggrandizement. It's typical of the left, which wallowed in the delusion that its experience was America's experience, and of Maran's character formation. But it's also typical of the larger "counterculture." Most counterculturists overestimated their own importance, and claimed more than their share of space as a result. And most of them are nicer, funnier, smarter, saner, and righter than their opposite numbers will ever know. How feckless they can be is proved by the noninhaler in the White House, who inspired hopes in Maran that I trust embarrass her now that the history teacher, who is his and her contemporary, is ordering him around. Here's hoping (although not predicting, God knows) that others of them--of us--learn even yet how to realize our kindest impulses in a world where institutionalized callousness is regularly mistaken for wisdom.

New York Times Book Review, 1995