Alex Lemon is a survivor. During his freshman year at Macalester College, he suffered a stroke; brain surgery followed. He recounted those traumatic events in his 2009 memoir, Happy, but in his new memoir, Feverland, he goes deeper into the experience of living in a body hellbent on self-destruction.
Minnesota State Fairgrounds
As Lemon endures one medical procedure after another, he excavates his past, from being hazed by his step-brothers to enduring molestation to blackout-inducing drug and alcohol abuse.
Interspersed with his demons are digressions on rat and cockroach infestations, philosophical musings from Aristotle and Rilke, and pop-culture references like The Big Lebowski. This funhouse of memories can be gruesome, disorienting, and even depraved at times, but Feverland isn’t entirely a downer; light, hope, and levity intervene when Lemon turns his gaze on his wife and two children.
To talk to Lemon is a vastly different experience than reading him. On the phone, he’s cheerful and chatty, even as he delves into questions about the macabre inner-workings of his mind and body. He spoke with us ahead of his appearance at the Twin Cities Book Festival on Saturday.
City Pages: Throughout the book, you’re in this battle with your body. Is there any time that you feel like you and your body are on the same side?
Alex Lemon: [Laughs] I’m really trying to figure that out. So much of the book, it’s trying to find a home in a body that does not feel like it’s mine, because of what has happened to it, and it’s trying to find agency and trying to come back to the body. Some days it’s still hard, because I deal with deficits and disabilities, so it’s a struggle. But a lot of days, that work of just being in this body is really good and nice, too. I’m still kind of navigating that gray area. There’s a lot of shitty stuff happening but that it doesn’t mean it’s all shitty – both in the world and in this body. That’s how I feel about it right now. But if you talk to me in a half-hour, who knows.
CP: There are so many digressions in the narrative – you have pages and pages about cockroaches, for example, but only one sentence about molestation. Were the digressions meant to fill out the memoir, to give the reader a break from emotionally difficult material, or were you avoiding going into the dark places?
AL: I don’t think I was trying to avoid going into those dark places at all. Though this book does traverse and traffic in a world of darkness and pain and depression and things like that, it’s also really celebratory. I think even the darkness can be a catalyst into a more jubilant exploration of the manifold brilliances around us that I’m amazed by every day... Just as I can never not be somebody who’s had these terrible things happen to them, I can also never not be the person who’s fascinated by medical history or Rodin or cockroaches or rats. All of that – those oddities, that strangeness, those strange beauties – are just a part of me as all of the horror and hardship, too.
CP: There’s a chapter called “My Misogyny” in the book. In it, you admit that you’ve mistreated women. Is that something you’ve outgrown or overcome?
AL: A lot of my interest has to do with the fallibility of people, depression, addiction, and masculinity, especially toxic masculinity and what it meant to be raised as a man in the way I was.
So, yeah, it’s something that I think everybody probably needs to work on every day, and it’s something I have been very cognizant of and deeply sensitive to for a really long time... Having that self-awareness and being able to check oneself is hard but it also contributes to making me become a better person every day. It’s something I’ve definitely outgrown, but it’s something that probably every man -- even the most sensitive and self-aware ones -- needs to work on. Our culture is pretty fucked up in a lot of ways and every man needs to be more sensitive how the patriarchy -- and especially toxic masculinity -- have not only hindered explicitly women but have really misshapen our culture and values in a lot of ways, too.
CP: How do you understand the connection between the sexual trauma you suffered as a child and the promiscuity in your 20s?
AL: I don’t explicitly make that connection in any of my writing. I put all those actions out there and I think connections tend to be made. I probably could say, “Yeah, there’s a correlation. I’m desensitized to any sort of intimacy and wanting it so bad that I keep struggling for it but I’m bound to fail.” I think it’s scientifically proven to have that linkage, but I explicitly did not make that connection. In a lot of memoirs that I don’t like, it allows people to be left off the hook for doing shitty things to people. That sucks. The literature says that there’s causation and linkage, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or that it absolves anything.
CP: You mentioned absolution. Was this book some sort of psychological purge you feel you needed to make before you die?
AL: No, not at all. I think Happy and Feverland are explorations in the self. They’re trying to honestly engage in who and what I am and what I’ve done. If there are aspects of those that start conversations about depression or addiction or medical trauma or sexual trauma, all the better. But I’m just trying to figure all that stuff out. For me, Feverland especially is a celebration of being alive even through hardship or darkness; that there’s really these wonderful facets of joy in the small things and the big ones, too – when I’m talking about my family and how much I love my family.
CP: There’s definitely light and hope in the passages about your family. How did you and your wife decide to have children, given the state of your health?
AL: In one of the early essays in the book, I was getting genetic testing at the University of Minnesota and I didn’t really know if I would be able to have a family. At that time, I had been so wrapped up in trying to take care of myself and trying to be alive myself that it didn’t really sink in. Then, suddenly, it shook me to the core, because I realized that sharing my life was something I wanted to do with my partner. Building a family has been profoundly scary – which I think is a normal thing – and incredibly gratifying, and it’s made every part of my day more vibrant.
IF YOU GO:
Alex Lemon, Feverland
Twin Cities Book Festival, Taxi Stage
1:30 p.m. Saturday, October 14