An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: a Memoir of an Outsider in Paris

  • Stephanie LaCava
  • Harper
  • 205 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis
  • January 24, 2013

The story of an American teenager’s mental deterioration while living in 1990s France.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects is a peculiar stylistic mash-up by a young writer with prodigious potential. Part memoir, part illustrated narrative, part digressive exposition, it tugs the reader’s attention first one way, then the other, an experience that must be somewhat akin to living with the inward focus of the author’s own restless mind.

In the central text, LaCava relates the story of her mental deterioration during the 1990s when she was an American teenager living in France. Of almost equal weight are her lengthy, discursive footnotes. And sprinkled throughout are whimsical illustrations by Matthew Nelson. The resulting impression can be one of creativity run amok: highly imaginative, charmingly original, but not constituting a successful whole. On the other hand, a closer or simply more forgiving approach might be to submerge oneself in LaCava’s vivid inner life while she struggles to make sense of the outer world.

Born into privilege, if not great wealth — her grandfather enjoyed whisking her grandmother away from their home in Massachusetts to vacations in Monte Carlo — the 12-year-old LaCava moved to Le Vésinet outside Paris, when her father’s mysterious business demanded it. The move was precisely the sort of opportunity parents regard as wonderfully enriching for their children, but which children may experience as confirming their own powerlessness. For LaCava, a child with few social skills and acute sensitivity, the move wasn’t merely a change: it was a rupture.

“I was always strange,” she states in her first sentence. She was the sort of child who purchased an acre of rain forest because “I thought that if I ever needed to run away, the plot would be there, undeveloped, with hundreds — thousands — of poison arrow tree frogs surfing in wait for me,” and she was most at home with books and small objects. For her, “there was safety and security in lovely little objects that appeared in the form of tiny souvenir-like tokens found over the years.”

LaCava’s father was absent when his family arrived in Le Vésinet in the spring of 1993. One night, soon afterwards, the lonely LaCava woke up and wandered into an abandoned house in the rear of the property and found a skeleton key. By the fall, she was wandering further afield through the dark streets of Le Vésinet, discovering objects as diverse as a mushroom and an opal necklace. These nighttime wanderings became symptomatic of her growing depression, which culminated in a disastrous school trip.

For LaCava, searching for and accumulating objects was a means of making sense of the world. She cherished small things almost as if she felt that holding and studying the parts would yield an understanding of the whole. She even read her father’s emotional reactions not by watching his entire face, but by studying his mustache. “The mustache did not move. I had no choice but to trust him,” she writes of the time he told her they were moving. The focus on his mustache is a lovely example of synecdoche to be certain, but it’s a heck of a way to interpret reality.

To some extent, LaCava’s instability was mirrored by the larger French society, where terrorists, many from Algiers, regularly attacked the Metro, and men with machine guns stood guard at her school’s gates. A classmate had to evacuate and live in anonymity because his father, an international banker, was possibly targeted for attack. France’s internal struggle against terrorism during a period when the United States still enjoyed pre-9/11 innocence is one of the insightful details LaCava gives us.

The other is her take on ’90s culture, and the rise of punk and the punk ethos. How earnestly her classmates try to out-Cobain Cobain. But theirs is a studied disaffection, and, so, by default, phony. A writer with more perspective would have captured the poignancy of children making an effort to appear not to be making an effort. Despite her talent, LaCava is perhaps still too close to these scenes to relate them with the compassion they deserve, leaving the reader to infer their significance, but not feel them.

In its extensive use of footnotes — they cover everything from pearls to glass eyeballs; from dodo birds to slip dresses — An Extraordinary Theory of Objects calls to mind Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where the bulk of the text is commentary written by the fictional Charles Kinbote about a fictional poem. As interesting as LaCava’s lengthy footnotes are, however, they fight for the reader’s attention and detract from her principal narrative.

Her story would have been more moving had she used as a model that other masterwork by Nabokov, Speak, Memory. The job of the memoirist, as opposed to that of the autobiographer, is to tell what transpired and to comment upon it. Whether by the adroit use of lyricism, like Nabokov, or a careful modulation of narrative voice, like Frank McCourt, a writer of memoir must engage readers so they experience what the writer did and understand it through the prism of hindsight.

Unfortunately, LaCava seems almost uncomfortable reflecting on what transpired in France. Some scenes, such as the staging of a mock terrorist attack by her classmates, end too quickly. And others, such as a trip to a market with her family, simply peter out. The web of circumstance she weaves isn’t strong enough to sustain the whole of her narrative. Time and distance can be a memoirist’s greatest aides: time, to grow wise; distance, to grow detached from a painful past, thereby attaining the remove necessary to relate that past artfully. Given LaCava’s considerable intellect and boundless curiosity, one hopes that with some time and distance she’ll one day give us a book that fulfills all the potential that An Extraordinary Theory of Objects suggests, but doesn’t quite express.

 

Patricia Schultheis is the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2007, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her short stories have appeared in nearly two dozen publications, and she has won awards from The Fitzgerald Writers’ Conference, The National League of American Pen Women, Nob Hill Branch, and Memoirs, Ink.

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