The Unexamined Life
This seeming vulnerability is perhaps why the reviewers who complained about Wilsey's one-dimensional portraits nevertheless pronounced Oh the Glory of It All a formidable literary work. These critics are taking Wilsey personally because he presents himself personally. And on the surface, much like reality television, there doesn't seem to be anything artful or "written" about Wilsey's seemingly frank, natural, spontaneously produced book at all:
Todd [Wilsey's stepbrother] had a picture of Dede in her debutante days up on the wall in his nongray room. She was beautiful in this photo; but, more importantly, she looked doable. This was a whack-off pic if there ever was one! She was showing a lot of cleavage, and she looked liked she wanted it. I always thought, Dude, why do you have a whack-off pic of your mom up on the wall above your bed? And then I'd get turned on from standing there looking at it and run upstairs to whack off.
For all its naturalness, there is something jarring about that passage. It's not just that a 35-year-old man is squandering the opportunity to publicly evoke his past by expressing himself in such a puerile way. The breezy, colloquial tone is, after all, the book's trust-me, nonartificial quality. What jolts you is that Wilsey graphically describes his physical attraction to Dede throughout the book because he seems to think--or he's been told--that this revelation has the capacity to shock. Yet it is neither unusual nor abnormal for a 14-year-old boy to be sexually drawn to his stepmother in some confused way. What's surprising, if not shocking, is that Wilsey never tries to "figure out" what it means for him to be sexually aroused by an emotionally abusive stepmother; he never tries to identify the quality in his character that might have given rise to such an impulse. There is something phony about authentically recounting experiences that you don't even take the trouble to understand.
And so the more you read, the more you wonder about the authenticity of Wilsey's apparent candor. For one thing, Wilsey re-creates precise dialogue--quotation marks and all--that he claims to have heard as a very young boy, not to mention precise descriptions of what he says he was feeling at exact moments at the time. This is an excerpt from an extended dinner-table conversation at his parents' house before they're divorced that he claims to have overheard. He was 4:
MOM: How do you feel you have changed?
&&&MAN'S VOICE: I was a Marxist. I had rejected spiritual values. But then... I saw the design in nature and I was convinced there was a Creator.... It was a bad time for me. I wanted to go home to the United States. Friends of mine got into power and I thought they would help me but they didn't.
This miraculously recollected conversation goes on for several hundred words. A year later, at the age of 5, Wilsey recalls a moment with his future stepmother:
"Come with me, Sean," she said. "I've got a surprise for you."
&&&I wondered how she had gotten into our house. But it didn't matter. She was Mom's best friend. I went downstairs, got in her car, and we drove to the supermarket. She took me to the candy aisle.
&&&"Let's pretend it's Halloween," Dede said. "And we can have as much candy as we want."
&&&I was tentative.
He remembers that at a precise moment, when he was 5 years old, he was tentative. I didn't know that 5-year-olds could even be tentative. (I thought they just had trouble making up their minds.)