Early on in my reading of Rob Spillman’s new memoir, someone asked me why it was written. She didn’t ask what it was about but instead went to the heart of what we expect in a memoir — that compelling tragedy, dysfunction or adventure driving the writer to share, hopefully, a page-turning shocker or an engaging seducer. All I could think to say in answer was that All Tomorrow’s Parties is a coming-of-age story, which doesn’t really answer why the memoir was written. It also doesn’t offer much incentive to grab the book and start reading.
Nuala O’Faolain, in the introduction to her 1996 best-selling memoir Are You Somebody?, tells of being approached by people scrutinizing her face, thinking they recognized her, and asking, “Are you somebody?” This happened during the 10 years she wrote a column for the Irish Times, and her photo accompanied the column. When a publisher asked her to turn her columns into a book, she considered these small brushes with fame and used the question for the title of her book:
“I’m not anybody in terms of the world, but then, who decides what a somebody is? How is a somebody made? I’ve never done anything remarkable; neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable. That self-importance welled up inside me. I had the desire to give an account of my life. I was finished with furtiveness. I sat down to write the introduction, and I summoned my pride. I turned it into a memoir.”
Rob Spillman, according to O’Faolain’s comments, isn’t “a somebody.” He’s the editor of Tin House magazine and editorial advisor for Tin House Books (a publishing house that turns out terrific novels, I might add). His memoir takes us on a journey of self-discovery during an interesting time in history, and while this may not be the stuff of a remarkable life, it’s pleasant to read.
Born in 1964 to American musicians, Spillman spent his childhood 200 miles behind the Iron Curtain in West Berlin; however, All Tomorrow’s Parties begins not with childhood, but with the 25-year-old Spillman attending a rave in East Berlin with his wife Elissa. This is after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before reunification. In alternating chapters, we go back and forth between this young adult time and his childhood and teen years. We learn that Spillman’s mother left when he was four years old, and Spillman’s constant exposure to his father’s career as a passionate pianist immersed him in the artistic life. Concert halls became his playground. But the father and son didn’t stay forever behind the Iron Curtain, leaving West Berlin when Spillman’s father accepted a position at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The young Spillman reconnected with his mother, staying with her during the school year in Baltimore, and then with his father during summers, attending the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Spillman’s deep yearning to live a life driven by an artistic passion — as his father was driven by his passion for the piano — thematically threads together the years. So, too, does his desperate want to be considered a Berliner, setting him apart in the United States and giving him a place to call home. Pain, confusion, failure and rebellion dominated his youthful American years. The teen-aged Spillman sailed through high school with academic excellence only to flunk out of college. He describes this time as living in “a drunken, womanizing haze.” During his time in Europe with his wife, the 25-year-old Spillman attempted to live a Bohemian life, lingering over but not committing to a half-baked novel. He thought returning to East Berlin during the historic changes of 1989 would define him and make him real, but that’s not what happened.
The book’s title comes from a 1967 song by The Velvet Underground, and it aptly captures a chasing of self, as if tomorrow holds the answer. For Spillman, when the answer finally arrives, it’s shallow. He fails to go deep into his enlightenment, and it comes across as all too common; however, the answer does bring him home. Back to the question I was asked in the beginning about the book, having finished it, I would respond as I did originally, but I would likely refer to O’Faolain’s commentary about writing a memoir and being a somebody. O’Faolain certainly proved you don’t have to be celebrity or tragedian to have a memoir-worthy life, but you do have to have something more than shallow enlightenment.