Biographies in our society are usually reserved for the famous, the infamous, and the dead associated with the famous or infamous. To get to the real meat of what a biography should be, one must turn to the autobiography shelf. Although this area is also filled with the lives of the well-known, there also reside some gems that sparkle with an inner-fire of their own. These are the stories of lives which are unique in themselves, not for what they did on the sports court or the silver screen.
Although Mark Salzman has starred in a movie, I somehow doubt that his is a household name. The movie was Iron & Silk, based on his book of the same title. Both book and movie are wonderfully simple yet with deep meaning, telling the story of Salzman’s life spent teaching English in China. Salzman has a real gift for taking himself out of the picture, so it seems that you are the subject of the autobiography. At the same time, he remains interesting as a subject. It was this strange mixture of self-depreciation and self-congratulation that endeared Salzman’s story to many readers, including myself.
The two books that Salzman followed his debut with were both novels, one a fantasy about how the Chinese would and do see America (The Laughing Sutra), the other about playing the cello (The Soloist). Both were good, but neither had the same strange dichotomy of his first. Mark Salzman’s latest book, Lost in Place, returns to the autobiographical, and also returns to the strange brew that made Iron & Silk so appealing.
Subtitled Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, Lost in Place chronicles Salzman’s life before he went to teach in China. In some ways it is a fairly mundane tale of coming of age in the 1960s. Yet Salzman as a subject is never mundane; from attempting to become a Zen monk at age 12, through the wonder and terror of high school and sadistic karate instruction, Salzman reveals that what might seem mundane on the surface actually teems with absurdity, wit, and…well, life. Instead of a simple listing of happenings which served him well in Iron & Silk, Salzman has added the strength of the novel to his autobiography. Everything that made his writing style so interesting remains–now, though, it has a structure, including a world-shattering climax. (Well, world-shattering for the protagonist–with meaning for the reader.)
The book is fascinating, especially for readers of Salzman’s previous books. We discover where his love of Chinese culture came from, and how he ended up studying classical Mandarin. We see the study of the cello in his own life, including has brief attempt at jazz cello and the interpretation of classical Indian music. But most of all, we see ourselves in Mark Salzman. We see the insecurities of a teenager in love and sex, ambition and depression, hedonism and the straight-and-narrow. While the specifics may not match our own lives, we can recall the same feelings of wanting so much, when life seemed like it was an endless chore, and also those epiphanies when we realize how much we resemble our parents, how much our parents resemble us, and how much we resemble each other.
In Iron & Silk, Mark Salzman used his time in China to reflect on what it meant to be an American. In Lost in Place, he goes one better–here he shows us what it means to be human. That is what true autobiography is about.
[Finished 12 July 1996; first published in Internet Daily News, 17 Feb 1997]