Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Monday, May 12, 2014

Deer Hunting in Paris, a memoir by Paula Young Lee

Anomalies abound in Paula Young Lee's Deer Hunting in Paris:  A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat (Palo Alto:  Solas House, 2013).  In Paris, working on her dissertation, she looks on the web for a date appropriate for one of her friends back in the States.  She finds a lawyer living in Wellesley, MA, but her "lizard brain" informs her that this "John" is the one for her.  Despite their agreeing on nothing whatsoever, it turns out that he is the one for her--except that he believes in marriage, or at the very least a committed relationship, and she doesn't.  When she returns from France, she agrees to live with him, but she regards it as a sociological experiment in monogamy.

Experiencing what it's like to live with someone and at the same time standing outside of the relationship in order to critique it is at once why this "memoir" succeeds as much as it does and, perhaps, one reason why it stops short of being completely successful.  Being on the outside looking in is a useful stance for a narrator--think of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  But that's fiction, and this purports to be memoir.  Lee is entertaining on her allergies to every type of food except meat; she makes us care about her Korean-American crippled father, who has ministered to congregations in one small town in Maine after another, and she can be laugh-out-loud funny on the incongruities she perceives.

Carried along by her exuberance, the reader may not notice how much Lee never mentions, but that's one indication that this work is not a memoir.  Admitting she went to Phillips Andover, she omits where she went to college, what she studied in which graduate school, whether she got a degree, how she supports herself, and, especially, how she can spend so much time away from work to be with "John" hunting and fishing near, but not actually in, Paris, Maine.  (It has to be Paris, Maine, rather than the house of John's parents in Bethel because otherwise the cute title won't work.)   Lee doesn't hunt or fish herself; she goes along with John and his brother or his son or his father when they do these things. 

Lee organizes these experiences in a casual, chronological way, stopping whenever she wants to riff on some topic, a number of which have little to do with God or guns or game and should have been cut.  In this sense, the book reads more like a journal.  What counts in a journal is getting something down; it's a record of a lived (if not always understood) life and the movement of one's thoughts.  It's experimental, almost by definition, because none of us ever fully realizes at the time just what a given experience means.  But a memoir is different:  it may incorporate elements of a journal, but those elements are distilled to reveal their essence. 

Unfortunately, Lee attempts to have it both ways, and the result is a disjunction between recording experience and assessing its significance. For example, here is Lee writing about John getting ready to field dress a buck that he's just shot:

     "As I stand there, holding the light, John adjusts the carcass, positioning the blade for the first cut. 

     "There is a moment, a balking, before the body.  It always happens, even to experienced hunters.  The first cut is an irrevocable act.  But it is something else, a primal activation:  the sight of the incommensurable.  It is to look Medusa in the face, and thus to be turned to stone.

     "We are frozen in the dark" (208)."

Notice the shift in point of view, from literally what she is observing to "it is," the way things are.  This person has never witnessed anyone field dressing a deer before, so how does she know that this balking always happens?  Who has told her this, and when?  Furthermore, dramatic as the reference to Medusa is here, what function does it serve?  Being turned to stone is one thing, "frozen" [in movement, we presume] is another, and in any case it is only a  moment before John "suddenly slices open the belly."  What is this, instant defrosting?  What happened to the primal activation, to the sight of the incommensurable? What justifies the reference to looking Medusa in the face?   Apparently, Medusa is there only for rhetorical effect--and when you look at the prose carefully, the hype is not justified. 

What we have here, therefore, is an uneasy mix of journal and memoir.  Having read this book twice, however, I am less inclined to fault Lee than her editor.  Lee has written an amusing, provocative, and occasionally bone-true book about coming directly to terms with the meat we consume.  Whether we are vegetarian or eat meat, we all have blood on our hands.  What Lee needed when Deer Hunting in Paris was in manuscript was an editor who could see what the book was about and help Lee shape it accordingly.  Instead, I imagine, Marketing reared its ugly head:  "Wow!  Here is a book by an Korean-American woman about deer hunting in Maine.  It's funny!  And she's a reformed vegetarian and a locavore! This is a winner!"  And so it was rushed into print before it was ready.  A first-rate editor would have helped Lee use her very real talent to re-shape the book.  That, unfortunately, was not to be--and we are the poorer for it.



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