book reviews, nonfiction

Stop Time, by Frank Conroy–review

That Frank Conroy’s memoir is titled Stop-Time is intriguing, in that within his story there is a sense of no-time.  While we know from the author blurb that he was born in 1936, and thus understand that he grew up in the 1940s, and while he vividly paints his physical surroundings, Conroy doesn’t include many cultural references that would seat the reader in a specific time-frame.  It doesn’t matter for the story, but it makes it difficult to orient oneself, which may be the point. Perhaps Conroy, via his memoir, is “sending [his voice] ahead to animate the bleakness, supremely conscious of himself as [a] pinpoint of life in a world of dead things.”  In his story he “ramble[s] over…miles of wasteland, trying to find the center of it, the place to know it, [sensing] the place around [him] but they [are] too thinly spread, too finely drawn over all the miles of woods for us to grasp them” (29).  He is writing of his boyhood explorations with his best friend, and “us” in that final sentence refers to them, but it fits his readers as well.
Briefly, at odd moments, Conroy abruptly switches to the present tense in his narrative, which serves to bring the reader directly into the moment.  It’s an effective device, but one for which I could discern no pattern.  A few times he employs it when he is writing about the here and now, and other times it seems he is emphasizing the importance of a memory, but he doesn’t use the technique consistently.  Each time he uses it, it does stop time; perhaps it is because he is abruptly in the moment himself, as when he first shows his wife sleeping beside him and reveals that he still can’t figure out if he is alive or dead.
Conroy doesn’t expound on his inner turmoil as a child, but I believe he reveals anger at two points.  He tells of sneaking into his parents’ room through a transom, after which he lands on his head.  He writes, “The pain was barely noticeable.  (No more than, fifteen years later, a woman’s teeth in my arm)” (157).  He leaps from gleeful sneak-thievery to sexual innuendo, and it makes no sense within the context of the scene.  Even if one were to stretch the association and equate his delight in conquering the locked door to later sexual exploration, he makes no further reference to anything remotely sexual in the next paragraph.  So I wonder if his statement, “the pain was barely noticeable,” is a bigger one, an angry yet wistful brushing-aside of the immense emotional pain he endured as a child.  I realize this is a stretch, too, but still, I wonder, particularly since this memoir is praised as being almost free of self-pity.  He jars the reader one other time when he is gazing on the face of his newborn sister.  He writes, “I spent a lot of time looking at her…as if by being there long enough…I would come to understand the mystery (I was a child, remember) of life” (154).  We know he’s a child—we’re 150 pages into his story, and nowhere else has he felt the need to remind us that he was just a kid.  Why here?  I wonder, again, if this is a bit of anger seeping out.
One notable instance in which Conroy shows an emotional reaction occurs, interestingly, in the chapter, “The Coldness of Public Places”.  He tells of his mother’s “nightly bout[s] of weeping, faintly girlish, expressing exhaustion rather than sorrow.  As a plea to Jean [his stepfather], they never worked” (137).  He goes to his room to collect his schoolbooks, with no rumination, no personal reaction to his mother crying, but later, in the library, when he witnesses the hidden anguish of a young girl, he is shaken.  He writes, “I recoiled from the peephole as if a needle had pierced my pupil.  In a frenzy of confusion I began sorting books as if nothing had happened” (140).
Conroy’s narrative is episodic, with a somewhat disjointed forward motion.  Trees, cars, travel, and shadows are recurring motifs, which serve to underscore his innate need to dissociate himself from his life.  He writes of both feeling invisible and wanting to disappear, as when he hides within the dog kennel as a child and when he drives drunk as an adult.  He tries to find a sense of family with the dogs, but after their sudden, inexplicable feral behavior, they become as much a mystery to him as his own family is.  He writes, “They had their own cabal from which I was excluded” (105).  He hides in trees from his mother, and as a teenager he runs away from his stepfather, hitch-hiking toward Florida until he realizes he will never see his baby sister again.
It seems that his baby sister is the one family member toward which he feels affection and from whom he doesn’t hide, yet she is the one character about whom he almost completely excludes from his memoir.  We meet her as a baby—and that’s it.  His mother spirits her off to Denmark, and when they come back, we have no sense of who she is as a person.  When she is a baby, and he is fascinated by her, he mentions that she is important simply because she exists.  His silence on the matter seems to underscore this.
What I take away from Conroy’s memoir as a writer is the idea that even ordinary events are worth writing about.  I’m stuck sometimes because I think everything has to be dramatic or horrific, and while I have plenty such events to write about, I worry that the reader will come away from my story with sadness, rather than the hope I prefer.  Conroy reminds me that a story is more than the sum of its parts.  He also shows that one’s writing is, indeed, informed by what one reads.

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