Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel by Nicolaia Rips
My rating: 3/5 cats
this is a tricky little book to review.
i picked it up because it was on the free shelves at work, and since the chelsea hotel has such a whackadoo vibe and reputation, i was curious what growing up in a place steeped in such atmosphere would have been like. plus, leonard cohen, although obviously there wouldn’t have been any overlap because time travel is not a thing yet.
however, for some reason, i didn’t realize until the end that it was written by a 17-year-old girl. had i known that before, i probably wouldn’t have read it, because things written by teenagers are usually not very good, apart from that qualified, “good for their age” appraisal. this one isn’t bad at all, and it’s very fast, which helped me achieve my “one nonfiction book a month” goal, but there are definitely some weaknesses, some of which are excused by the author’s age, and some of which are excused by a further complication. in the author’s note at the end (yeah, i read those), she explains the provenance of this book: it grew out of a journal she had been keeping since the eighth grade; a chronicle of her loneliness and adventures and injustices, which she spent the next five years rewriting with her father as a creative exercise and bonding experience: He has guided me, teaching me how to structure a story, weave together themes, and connect loose ends into a narrative. and then she spotlights that murky back alley where memoir meets fiction:
I know my teachers and classmates and others will not recognize some of the events that I recount, any more than they will recognize their names, which have been changed. Nor should they, because these are the stories of my life; stories that are remembered, imagined, passed down, and often a combination. They are as legitimate as my memories, which are fallible and mysterious, and as real as you care to believe.
this is, to me, the most interesting and mature part of the book. i don’t know if simon & schuster made her address this to stave off any james frey-type situations, but it opens a lot of intriguing mental doorways, mostly to do with marketing and readership, which may not concern you, but pique the interest of my readers’ advisory-minded brain. most books sold as memoir are probably at least 30% spurious, and any discrepancies can be passed off – sincerely or not – as the vagaries of memory and the subjective interpretation of individual experiences. and yet people seem to get real outraged with people like james frey or j.t. leroy, who construct personas and pass them off as memoir because no one wants to know they’ve been fooled. so where does something like this fall, on the scale of outrage? an embellished collaboration between father and daughter (awwww) of fact and fiction (grrrr, pitchforks) presented as memoir because there’s no chimera section at the bookstore.
personally, i have no opinion on the matter because i’m a skeptical realist who mistrusts most of what is passed off as memoir and i believe ’making shit up’ flavors all personal anecdotes from the barstool to the bestseller list. but the writing process does lay to rest some of the questions i was having while reading this in terms of the insights and the articulate speechifying qualities attributed to the author as a child, and her frequently too-knowing responses. it would be one thing if the writing here was exceptional, and these early-promise seedlings from the mouth of babe were harbingers of some genius writer, but even with adult supervision, this book is fine, but not astonishing.
it’s a collection of anecdotes from her childhood, in very brief sketches (some not even a page and a half), and the biggest complaint i have is not that it’s not a ‘true’ memoir, but that it doesn’t have the true chelsea hotel focus i’d been hoping for. a lot of these stories take place at school, at camp, on soccer fields, etc, rather than what i’d been expecting – a little girl knocking on doors and bouncing from apartment to apartment, raised by a community of eccentrics in the crumbling embrace of a legendary landmark. there’s some of that here, but not enough, considering that there are a billion memoirs on the shelves about children who just didn’t fit in with their peers and lived to tell the tale, and what should have set this one apart from those is the faded glamor of the hotel and its kooky inhabitants.
i did love the story in which her perspective of her life in the hotel is rocked by the horrified reactions of a group of her peers when they go to a party at her place. which, if you ever needed proof that little girls have no idea of what’s cool, that is it. because lemme tell you, if i got invited to a princess banquet, where everyone was dolled up and there was a catered four-course meal with cakes and pies and candles and flowers and waiter-service, where i was greeted in the lobby by some dude who yelled “I hope you princesses have a fucking good time” and then got to ride the elevator with a black-clad, stringy-haired woman named smiley who shouted “BACK, MIDGETS!” so her wheelchair could fit in and then started accusing everyone of stealing her electricity, and when that party was later interrupted by a visit from a disheveled and visibly-injured man known as el capitan, wearing nothing but underpants and a cracked monocle, raging about the fight he had with his lover in heavily-accented dramatic flair:
”…I am not seriously injured, though I might well have been. While Lady Hammersmith’s intentions were not clear, her first blow with the ax brought down the canopy of my bed, bruising my head and raising me from my sleep. But for this, I am not certain what would have happened.”
“An ax?” I asked.
“A francisca to be exact – acquired from an antiquarian in the south of France,” he reflected.
well, i would be wondering when i could go back, not fleeing that party in terror. and if i lived there myself, i hope i would be savvy enough to understand that little princesses are clueless about the stuff of life and would be able to celebrate the odd and not disavow my claim to coolness the way the author was embarrassed into:
The Chelsea Hotel was no longer a shining castle, it was a crumbling outpost of outcasts, outbursts, and failure. Those I loved weren’t captains, knights, and ladies, they were addicts and cripples and prostitutes. From that day on I dreaded becoming like them. I strived to distance myself and to fit in elsewhere.
That day I learned I had to keep my Chelsea Hotel to myself. I was ashamed.
little girls are poor barometers of what’s awesome.
it’s not a great book, but the stories that actually do involve the hotel’s denizens, fictionalized or not, are worth a read.