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A trip down memoir lane with accordionist Linda Robertson 

Wednesday, Jul 30 2008

On principle, there are several reasons to oppose Linda Robertson's new book. For starters, What Rhymes with Bastard? is yet another young person's memoir: of immigration (from Scotland to San Francisco), of dot-com–era decadence and decline, of a parent's grave illness, of a seriously and hilariously weird romantic relationship, and of self-directed (if fumbling) womanhood. It comes complete with a discursive anthropology of Bay Area freaks and geeks, and practices every conceivable manner of self-effacement, including cute footnotes. It possibly will divide its readers' sympathies along gender lines, and, in that way at least, is predictable.

In other words, it is almost overwhelmingly precedented.

Does the world need another book like this? Does San Francisco? Well, yes, of course, because this is the place to come for such stories; if ever they cease, the true culture of this city finally will have died, and that can't be allowed. Also, because What Rhymes with Bastard? is simply a very good read — genuine, wickedly funny, and highly alert.

And useful. Fans of Cotton Candy, Robertson's accordion-intensive five-piece cabaret act, will at last have the backstories of such memorable ditties as "My Landlord Is a Pervert" (well, he was), "The Arsehole" (everybody makes mistakes), "The Stroker" (not what you think, but maybe worse), and "Psycho Roommate" (you can see how this is working). In a way, What Rhymes with Bastard? is an unsolicited, protracted, and long-delayed elaboration of Robertson's acceptance speech for being crowned Miss Accordion San Francisco 2004. As such, it is not unwelcome, and, under the circumstances, most gracious.

That peculiar coronation was no easy feat, by the way. If the book makes anything clear, it's that she earned it. "It seems that in life I'm incapable of moving on voluntarily," Robertson writes about midway through her tale. "I usually have to get myself fired." Of this there is ample supporting evidence, particularly in the matter of her relationship. Much of the narrative concerns one Jack, the eponymous bastard: maybe not quite the worst boyfriend and husband in human history, but certainly one who requires at least a whole book to explain him. Suffice to say that if anybody ever makes What Rhymes with Bastard? into a movie, the role of Jack could conceivably launch some brave young actor's career.

Their time together unfolds in many linked episodes of accident-scene fascination. It's perversely titillating to see how fearlessly Robertson walked that wafer-thin line between perfect symbiosis and pathetic codependence. As we all do.

In retrospect, she has no illusions: "Jack had been in San Francisco for three months when he found a place. It was a depressing shithole full of annoying clowns, but it was his. That filthy den was to be the perfect backdrop for our decaying love."

Her list of bad things about him ("naive to point of cruelty," "doesn't like my hands: 'a bit veiny,'" "makes pompous, nihilistic speeches," etc.) is 52 items long, and that really is being generous. In fact, generosity is the engine of the book. Jack is a character, all right, but he's also quite vividly a human being, and that's thanks to Robertson's gift for combining pitilessness with compassion in such appealing proportions.

She has a good songwriter's intuition about narrative economy and restraint. None of her confessions seem ingratiating, and for all the intensity of feeling, the touch remains deceptively light. Who knows — maybe it's because she's from Scotland. What matters most is that she justifies being the center of her book's attention. It sounds obvious, but that isn't something very many first-person specialists can do anymore, perhaps in part because there are so very many first-person specialists.

And so what at first might be opposed on principle and misunderstood as a shallow, superfluous exercise reveals itself to have several layers of depth. As the book proceeds, for instance, it becomes clear that Jack isn't its most essential supporting character after all, and not just because he generally isn't very supportive.

No, look deeper, to Robertson's mother, whose singular wisdom begins each chapter, and to whom the book is rightly dedicated. Mum always wants the best for her Linda, even when neither of them has any clue about what that might be. And Mum proves her Mumness as a tireless, tiresome correspondent, forever flinging letters at her girl from half a world away. Robertson subjects her parents to writerly scrutiny, too, seeing right through to the core of their original courtship: "Alec represented the security of the home-owning class. The son of two snobbish teachers who never went near him, he was immune to aesthetics, unathletic, clever, and possessed of total integrity. He would never buy her flowers, and he would never let her down."

As for Linda's Jack, well, he must at least have bought her flowers once. Right?

Even same old stories have a special kind of staying power, which Robertson here distills into an auspicious literary debut. If the book's conclusion feels a little too memoirishly pat, well, maybe that's at least a little to do with the feeling it creates — very recognizable around these parts — of not wanting its story of self ever to end.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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