books-adjmi

“Lot Six”

By David Adjmi

Harper. 400 pp. $27.99

The threads of playwright David Adjmi’s debut memoir, “Lot Six,” are woven tightly. Adjmi, whose grandparents were Syrian and Jewish, grew up in a New York City neighborhood where “The Community” of Syrian Jews was both ubiquitous and demanding. The youngest child in a family that had fallen a few rungs down the wealth and power ladder, David spends most of his childhood in the yeshiva before transferring to a secular school as a teenager. Through it all, his parents manipulate each other and their children out of a fear of losing face within the community. As this dysfunction both shapes and propels him, David remolds himself again and again, trying to craft a story about who he is while navigating queerness, mental illness, perpetual feelings of outsiderness, and self-doubt.

And yet, Adjmi refers to the “mystic religious joy of childhood.” He delighted in a playground of “culture” — museums, plays, food and the trove of New York City art that his mother regularly exposed him to. But there was a dark depth to the sea of David’s early life, even in the joyful memories. As a child, he became obsessed with the musical “Sweeney Todd” — which perhaps provided an allegory for his invisible wounds, cuts hidden by the diverting melodies of outward appearances.

Adjmi’s devotion to stories is the axis around which “Lot Six” revolves. He recounts being deeply affected by plays, television shows, movies. “We were in life together,” he writes of the millions of people who all tuned in to watch the TV movie of the week. “We shared a common humanity.” But David’s deep connection to these stories is also emblematic of his ability, perhaps also a curse, to shape-shift. “I’d begun to accept that living would be a kind of honed falseness — that, like a broken bone locked in a cast, one’s inner self only existed to be grafted and reshaped,” Adjmi writes. “Everything was foreign to me, even my own intimate life.”

Reality is just as fluid as fiction, and Adjmi deftly plays with this tension. The blurred line shows up in all his relationships: with his therapists, his friends, his siblings, even with himself. His family, especially his parents, tell themselves stories about their own lives and the lives of their children that align with what they desire or can accept. David’s father wages an especially insidious kind of psychological warfare. As the father tries to control David by alternately supporting him financially and cutting him off — plying him with saccharine words, then ignoring him completely — the reader, too, is left unmoored, askew. While the manipulation and gaslighting are plain to see, it seems that David’s father is not fully aware of what he’s doing. His behavior is symptomatic of a kind of toxic masculinity combined with a striving for the American Dream, which itself is a lie. Adjmi’s prose is so precise and detailed as to bring the reader into the chest cavity of a person suffocating from confusion: “I was no longer merely human, I was a blend of fiction and real.”

The spider web of masculinity that ensnares David is central to the stories he tells himself. “Maybe to become a man I had to contravene my own instincts,” Adjmi writes. “Was this freedom? Was it a new kind of morality? Would the morality empower me to survive life?” As David navigates his queer sexuality, his all-consuming desire to please and be loved by others, and his alternately numbed and overwhelming emotions, he constantly tries to reckon with what it means to be a man, and he never arrives at a neat conclusion. Of course, there are no neat conclusions, which makes the reckoning all the more compelling.

As “Lot Six” assiduously charts David’s life — from early childhood through college, graduate school and his career — the book becomes an immersive experience, not unlike theater. On every page, readers are tasked with asking themselves the terrifying, beautiful question: What is the story of a life?

Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic.

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