Thursday, October 13, 2011

ARCHIVED REVIEW: Hamlet's Dresser (5/4/11)

Hamlet's Dresser
by Bob Smith

"In sooth, I know not why I am so sad." - Merchant of Venice

Hamlet's Dresser is yet another memoir about how Shakespeare saved someone's life, and luckily I did not have to stop this one half way through.

Bob Smith is a troubled child, haunted and scarred by his unstable mother, his absentee father and his mentally retarded sister. He turns inward and finds solace in the words of Shakespeare. His life is rocky until he embraces his calling as a Shakespeare scholar, and, with this memoir, heals the wounds of his past.

Unlike Ghostlight, a plodding linear narrative that got stuck in the mire of his early childhood trauma, Hamlet's Dresser bounces around in time, from his childhood to his adulthood to various points on the timeline between. While this keeps the story from stagnating, it feels a bit arbitrary at times. Smith will finish telling a tale, and then plop you right down in the middle of it again a page or so later, which is disorienting if you care about chronology.

I did thoroughly enjoy his entry points to Shakespeare. Often, he would tell a story from his life, and then finish it with a quote from Shakespeare, and, juxtaposed, they would illuminate each other. You were able to feel the universal nature of the personal story, while at the same time discovering that Shakespeare knew what he was talking about.

He also excellently portrayed the effects of growing up as a child of a Catholic family in the 1960s, and the dents and scratches, and even lifelong burdens you get from careless things that adults and parents say. At a young age, when the world is still a mystery, you gather and retain information like a sponge, and something said in jest can reverberate through your head years later.

I do find it hard to review memoirs. It's not a fiction, or a piece of artwork that you can objectively analyze. It is a person's life, opened raw and naked, and told in the way he sees it.

Pushing past that a bit, I felt he spent too much time on his sister and his mother. His sister became a millstone around his neck, and though he loved her, he was always haunted by her half-formed presence, comparing her often to mad Ophelia. His mother would today be diagnosed as manic depressive or bipolar and she used him as a crutch rather than as a son. Several stories establish this dynamic, but they continue for half the book. Even with the jumping around, you don't get to the point when he starts working for a theater and becomes the titular Hamlet's dresser until about 3/4 of the way in.

However, this is an excellent book for examining the effect that high art can have on personal stories, not only Bob Smith's but those he loves. However, the pain of his story can often leave you exhausted and dripping with bits of his depression.

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