Alan Lightman’s memoir “Screening Room: Family Pictures” is a recollection of his larger-than-life Memphis-based family, but its narrative power is blunted because some of the characters are belatedly revealed as fictional.
‘Screening Room: Family Pictures’
by Alan Lightman
Pantheon, 247 pp., $25.95
Alan Lightman’s “Screening Room” is the first memoir I’ve reviewed that requires a spoiler alert.
Lightman is both scientist (he trained as a theoretical physicist) and novelist (“Einstein’s Dreams”). Born and raised in Memphis, he left as a young adult. Left? He says he “escaped … embarrassed by the widespread belief that southerners were ignorant bigots and slow.”
There were brief visits home, of course, but now, 40 years after his departure, he returns for a month, following the death of a beloved uncle. It marks the “first time in decades, all the living cousins and nephews and uncles and aunts have been rounded up and thrown together.”
It is cause for wonder and reflection: “What is this cord,” he writes, that binds them? That speculation prompted this book, part personal memoir and part Our Crowd. It is an intelligent, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous read — delightful, at least until its final page.
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Lightman grew up in Jewish Memphis, though the Jews were “more or less assimilated into Christian society” — with a caveat. They still needed their own country club, and one high school had an oak called the Jew tree, where Jewish students met at lunch time.
Alan grew up in comfortable circumstances. His grandfather, Maurice Abraham Lightman (known as M.A.), founded the Malco chain of some 60 Southern cinemas. He was larger than life. M.A. reputedly swam across the Mississippi at age 43, served as president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners Association and was ranked among the world’s top bridge players.
However, while financially comfortable, Alan’s emotional comfort level seems less so. His mom, Jeanne Garretson, was “a bombshell,” says cousin Lennie, who introduced her to Alan’s dad, Richard. “So was I. We had some good times. Most of it can’t be discussed in mixed company.”
But life-of-the-party Jeanne suffered from depression and attempted suicide at least once.
Husband Richard was a milquetoast, a product perhaps of growing up under the thumb of a strong and domineering father. Lennie’s fifth husband, Nate, the only observant Jew in the family, uses a Kabbalah-inspired concept to suggest that M.A.’s soul survived to haunt his descendants.
An idiosyncratic family, yes, but troubles aside, its story makes for an interesting and fun read. Until the spoiler.
Turns out not all the characters are real. The main ones are and others are amalgams of real people. But others are complete fiction.
Lightman explains: “What is real? If the past is all that is real, because it is all that is reputed to have actually happened, then it cannot actually be real because it shifts and contorts in our mind.”
Sure, memory plays tricks on us. We view our lives from the inside out, not as others see us. But there is a difference between faded memories and hallucinogenic ones, between impressionistic and splatter paintings. Ask Brian Williams.
Ironically, most of my negative reaction is because the book itself is so good. I felt vested in the Lightman family and cheated when I found out that some of that family didn’t exist.