Reviewed: I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by: James Allen Hall CSU Poetry Center Winner of 2016 Essay Collection Competition, Selected by Chris Kraus
Personal non-fiction is still such risky business. It’s something I’ve come to realize over time and through practice; writing about oneself is not only revealing about life’s contents but also a distinct commentary on how we envision our life’s trajectory, structure or form. James Allen Hall’s I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well spun me into a sort of frenzied reflection about what it actually means to write about the lives we lead, particularly when we come from minority, marginalized, often victimized groups.
Hall’s text is filled with physically and psychologically violent episodes. That he is aware of this and is able to harness the violence, which he seems to qualify as excess, into something, makes the book all the more relatable and interesting. With this method of storytelling Hall is excising his demons, whether about his mother, or his sexuality or his relationship to the AIDS virus.
The collection of essays opens with a piece about Hall in high school, falling in love and later being bullied by other classmates. Already in these first pages he is building a character and the shape of something: “I felt the cuts all over my body where the word [faggot] made invisible grooves, where the label was already being sutured to my skin. He had friends behind him; behind me was an air-space made emptier by silent onlookers.” Hall is alarmingly present in his solitary body, seeking new ways to occupy tense, dangerous space.
Midway through the book there is an essay about Hall’s mother’s attempts at suicide. He cannot decide what to do with her, to continue to parent her, to break free. Hall writes:
“I tell too many stories at once. This, too, is a violence. But I want to tell you everything, I want you to love me for it, and I want you to forgive me after I say everything you asked me not to say.”
In the telling, in the making form of what is clearly chaos, Hall is attempting to build something that is beyond, better than human flaws and daily life. Non-fiction and personal essay take up one of the most difficult literary tasks, they attempt to give form to something that is borderless, messy, continuous and raw—life. Of course, all of literature is based on life to some extent, but Hall’s essays are filled with content that could not be controlled in real life and there is always the chance that the written work then falls into complete chaos as well. But it doesn’t. Hall manages to reduce the lived experience of excess into something more formally coherent on the page. These essays provide a harmony, a feeling that something is resolved or learned, that the real life people featured in the work never arrive at and something very few of us arrive at an any point.
This question of form and emotion is an ongoing one when it comes to work that deals with the personal (perhaps then, all work). The difficulty in achieving a balance of this nature is one of the reasons why there is still a taboo about excessive or feminine writing—we find comfort in distance, we think being cold is being strong. In the essay “On Poverty of Spirit: A Conversation and a Letter” György Lucáks writes:
“All that is clear is nonhuman, because so-called humanity consists of a constant mixing and confusing of borders and regions. The living life is formless, because it lies beyond the forms; this is so because in the living life no form can become clear and pure. As a matter of fact, that which is clear can arise only insofar as it is wrenched forcibly out of this chaos and insofar as everything that had tied it to the earth is cut away.”
I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well takes the cool, intellectual quality of conceptual writing and poetics and turns it in on the self, allowing for experimentation while maintaining intimacy.
“Once there was no artifice, only a real body, a hand touching it, saying, You are my beloved, and that is how I know I am real. But that was just a fairy tale: no body is real.
I tried giving up desire. The prayer would start, Please, let me wake up
Once I was a man below, a woman on top, a palimpsest that made me less clear to the world and made the world clearer to me.
Once I was not a satyr, a eunuch; not trans- or bi- or uni-.
Once I was afraid my roots were showing. Then, I was afraid that no one would see them.”
Hall gets to the fears of so many queers, the simultaneous need for invisibility and visibility; the need to name oneself. And he turns his queer feelings into general feelings and then back again, not tricking the reader, but luring them in, convincing them of their shared experience.
These essays feel particularly resonant right now because they illustrate two sides of America that people rarely imagine together: the lower middle class and queers. Of course there are plenty of people living this reality, but portrayals across the media pit the two groups onto opposing sides, imbibe them with opposing values. And Hall is triumphant, he persists in naming himself, in living out his life in this blurred existence and this is an example of strength, I for one, need right now. Because finding form in such confusing space can be a way to solutions, compromise and powerful writing.