CARNEGIE MEDAL FINALIST • A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • From "one of our most nuanced thinkers on the intersections of race, class, and feminism (Cathy Park Hong, New York Times bestselling author of Minor Feelings) comes a memoir "as electric as the title suggests" (Maggie Nelson, author of On Freedom).
The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson has lived in the thrall of a cast of others—her parents and maternal grandmother, jazz luminaries, writers, artists, athletes, and stars. These are the figures who thrill and trouble her, and who have made up her sense of self as a person and as a writer. In her much-anticipated follow-up to Negroland, Jefferson brings these figures to life in a memoir of stunning originality, a performance of the elements that comprise and occupy the mind of one of our foremost critics.
In Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson shatters her self into pieces and recombines them into a new and vital apparatus on the page, fusing the criticism that she is known for, fragments of the family members she grieves for, and signal moments from her life, as well as the words of those who have peopled her past and accompanied her in her solitude, dramatized here like never before. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are among the author’s alter egos. The sounds of a jazz LP emerge as the intimate and instructive sounds of a parent’s voice. W. E. B. Du Bois and George Eliot meet illicitly. The muscles and movements of a ballerina are spliced with those of an Olympic runner, becoming a template for what a black female body can be.
The result is a wildly innovative work of depth and stirring beauty. It is defined by fractures and dissonance, longing and ecstasy, and a persistent searching. Jefferson interrogates her own self as well as the act of writing memoir, and probes the fissures at the center of American cultural life.
Pulitzer Prize winning critic and memoirist Jefferson (Negroland) refashions her nervous system into a "structure of recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and words" in this bold and roving work. As most people refine their adult selves, she posits, they become calcified and set in their ways. To resist that and instead "become a person of complex and stirring character" Jefferson plunges deep into her "raw intimacies," memories, and the histories of Black artists who have nurtured her creative and critical self throughout her life. Reflecting on her early love of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Bud Powell whose chords "blaze and blast through unsanctioned states of mind" she ruminates on the ways their brilliance came up against society's "firm constraints." When contemplating Hattie McDaniel's 1940 Oscar ("the first Academy Award nomination for our race") for her role in Gone with the Wind, she wonders whether it was an "advance or setback" (settling on "both"). Most intriguing, though, is Jefferson's self-aware refusal to write from a critic's remove: when a discussion of Willa Cather's writing tempts her to launch into lofty analysis, she interjects "STOP! Collect yourself, Professor Jefferson." By inviting readers backstage, she creates a dance of memory and incisive cultural commentary that's deeply and refreshingly personal. This gorgeous memoir elevates the form to new heights.