Whether it’s a piece of visual art, a musical performance, a dance performance, a theatrical performance, or a work of literature, material which comes from the soul deserves a degree of vulnerability and a willingness to confront the self from its reviewer.
Written by Betsy Warland, ‘Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas’ seems as much a geography as it is a memoir. Given that ‘in’ prefaces the word ‘between’ almost always the title ‘Oscar of Between’ draws attention to itself . The ‘of’ calls to mind naming conventions where geography (or place) play a role, Catherine of Russia, Henri IV of France, the Earl of Essex, and so on. Like Oscar, Catherine and her ilk also have a given name. In any event, the title seems to be notice that the author is staking a claim on her territory, a place called ‘between’. The allusion to geography doesn’t stop there, throughout the memoir there are diary-like entries which include dates and places. The contrast between concrete locations such as Vancouver, Iowa, Berlin, etc. and the imaginary location ‘between’ is dislocating and there is more to come.
Oscar/Betsy maps a number of themes including but not limited to androgyny, camouflage, art and lies, war and violence, and recognition for one’s work.
Oscar brings to the forefront a disconcerting and delicately handled discussion about sexual identity where one is neither/nor. She is a lesbian who’s had a son but is frequently identified by others as a man (in part due to flat chest from a double mastectomy). What does it mean to be androgynous or perceived to be androgynous? There is no answer as this memoir is an exercise in geography, that is, exploration and naming followed by more exploration.
The war and camouflage themes make their appearances early on. Of course, war is part of the author’s name, Warland, and, as it turns out, a visit to one of the Imperial War Museum’s 2007 exhibitions in London inspires Oscar’s interest in camouflage and one of themes for this memoir.
While zoological and botanical camouflage occur in nature, Oscar’s focus is on military camouflage some of which has been designed by artists bringing thoughts of art and lies. (Before moving further with that, it bears noting camouflage, a form of deception, is about ‘seeing without being seen’, a description of sorts for the artistic process.)
Getting back to lies, early on in the book there’s a quote from the most famous literary Oscar in the English language, Oscar Wilde,
The final revelation is that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art. (p. 21)
A reference to her own then unfinished essay, “Narrative and the lie,” is made on the previous page and when taken in conjunction with the quote appearing shortly after the question arises is anything in this memoir true? What is the lie or where are the lies?
It’s possible there are some factual lies in this memoir but the little I do know about the author that was mentioned in this work was factually correct.
There is other ways for a writer to lie. In one’s pursuit of the ‘truth’ there are many inchoate revelations that can only be inadequately put into words and sentences. In short, by trying to pin down the inchoate with words, you’re left with a partial truth at best.
Further, efforts to get the complete truth on the page can render it incomprehensible. (As a technical writer I once wrote up a process precisely and in complete detail then asked someone else on the team to read it. After, the other technical writer looked me and said something like this, “I didn’t understand anything.” I went back and edited out most of the detail so the description was no longer as accurate or complete but hopefully more helpful to the users.) There are lies of omission and commission and sometimes writers lie both ways.
In keeping with the military camouflage motif, Oscar’s foray into war and violence makes unheralded and unexpected appearances throughout much of the narrative which ranges from spare poetic lines and imagery to a denser style of text seeming to reflect an interplay between silence and communication and between feelings and ideas.
Throughout the work there is an emphasis on observation and questioning over explanations and experiential descriptions. Certainly, that’s how Oscar treats the issue of recognition. There are no recriminations or rants about why an artist with Warland’s body of work is not included in certain conferences and, until relatively recently, has never been awarded a Canada Council grant.
Ironic that a writer who wishes to see rather than be seen wants recognition. (The desire to see without being seen is true of all writers who must always hold some part of themselves in reserve so they may observe the action for future reference.)
There are contradictions and ironies throughout ‘Oscar of Between’ some of which results in a kind of wry humour. There is also a sense of a distanced compassion perhaps most strongly conveyed by the pauses or silences (the white space between the lines) in the sections with sparse text. It’s those things which don’t fit so well, the descriptions of societal violence which give this memoir it’s dynamism.
For a memoir concerned with lies, camouflage, war and violence, and more, it is strangely contemplative. I do recommend reading it but be prepared to go down some unexpected byways and for a haunting experience which may end when you have finished reading.
Other reviews and commentaries
March 29, 2016 review by Julie R. Enszer for lambdaliterary.org
April 18, 2016 review by Julie R. Enzer for Gay Sonoma.com (not identical to her March 2016 review for Lambda)
April 20, 2016 review by Maree for Autostraddle.com
More Oscar from Betsy
Betsy Warland is hosting an Oscar’s Salon on her website where she invites other artists and writers to ruminate on ‘Oscar of Between’ (keep scrolling down to get to individual entries).
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of the memoir and was taken out to lunch.