“Would that the words, sentences, and paragraphs of Pot Farm were as resin-drenched as we are told. It would have mellowed the thing, allowed some consciousness to stream. Instead, this book in praise of pot is tightly wound, and altogether too insistent on not just telling a wicked good story, but instead insists on dazzling the reader with its insouciant, yet majestic prose, locked into ‘new’ forms of storytelling that were old ten years ago. Which is, if you think about it, rather ironic.”
It may be part of a cultural shift, or it may have been expected given the fact that the baby boomers, its single largest group of consumers, are now of an age in which chronic complaints have set in, or it may simply have to do with the vague changes in laws controlling this much-controlled substance. But after literally a lifetime without any books on the subject, we now suddenly have two memoirs focusing on a single cash crop: marijuana. So let’s compare and contrast.
The first, Growgirl, by actress (The Blair Witch Project and little else) Heather Donahue was published in January of 2012 and reviewed at length here at New York Journal of Books. It told the story of Ms. Donahue’s life-changing decision to move from Los Angeles, home of a million auditions, to Northern California, where she tried her hand for one brief season as a grower of medical marijuana.
In a story with vague-but-happy parallels to The Egg and I, Ms. Donahue plays the fish out of water, whose decision to move was predicated on a relationship with a man, who, scant weeks after the move was finalized, decided that their relationship was not for him. And so alone, save for her dog, the women she befriends and with whom she forms a girl group to play original music at the local tavern on weekends, and the members of the kind of, sort of commune with whom she shares her farm workers, pickers and profits, she sets out to rebuild her life, and, ultimately to grow a pretty mean bud, before giving it all up for the sake of a new relationship with a baker.
Thus it may be concluded that Growgirl is a light-hearted book, albeit one that spends a bit of time dissecting present-day laws concerning marijuana and making a case for legalizing the drug. Further, Heather Donahue makes a strong case that she has made the right move from actress to author, as she has given us a memoir that is as pungent as a cloud of Trainwreck (a strain of marijuana about which the reader will come to learn much) smoke.
The second book on the subject of pot farming is something very different, although how the two are so very different is, at first, hard to say. Both are set in Northern California, where small towns depend upon the farms for an influx of dollars while government helicopters hover overhead. Both are cast with a mixed bag of humorous and not-so-funny misfits of the aged hippie and hippie nouveau sorts and both involved ventures into vegetarianism and a sense of running away from the cares and woes of the “real world” on the part of our narrator.
But it is something about the narrator that separates the two volumes. And not just the gender, or the fact that Ms. Donahue is trying to build a very small business for herself by growing the cash crop herself, whereas Mr. Frank is simply a hired hand on what seems to be an extraordinarily large and well-organized farm. No, it is something in the way that Matthew Gavin Frank talks to us when he tells us his story. The way he commits words to paper.
Perhaps it is the fact that, where Ms. Donahue was once an actress before changing careers, Mr. Frank was best known as a poet. And so, perhaps it is still with an eye toward poetry that be begins his story:
“I would say: At dusk, the corps silhouettes held to the sky like herons cemented to the earth, leaves flapping feebly in the Northern California wind, unable to lift themselves from the forthcoming hands of the Morning Pickers, and the watchful green eyes of Lady Wanda—I would say that, but I was likely stoned. It’s just as likely that the crops didn’t look like herons at all, there was no wind, and it might not have even been dusk. It could have been morning. It could have been afternoon. Having worked on a medical marijuana farm, filling six notebooks with scribblings of varying degrees of sense, and engaging along the way in the attendant and standard subcultural vices, I have made of myself an unreliable narrator.
“Indeed, much of my memory of the experience exists somewhere between the hazy and the disturbingly vivid—it is the stuff of fever dream and emotion, and drugs, and hangovers, and hard physical labor. The pot farm, and that stage in our lives, still has a tenuous feel, an uncertain connection to reality. But that’s exactly what the place and time were: tenuous.”
And yet, Mr. Frank had the wherewithal to fill those notebooks with quotes, observations, characters, and characteristics enough to fill this memoir, about which he writes:
“Given the nature of the pot farm and the people who work there, I am changing names as well as not talking about certain things. Unreliable. I am Binjamin Wilkomirski, and James Frey, and Helen Demidenko, and Wanda Koomatrie. I am waiting to be crucified on Oprah, then sign a seven-figure deal.”
And who, but an academic, could come forth with Demidenko and company, much less spell them, perpetrators all of literary hoaxes of various degrees; and who but an academic would want to place himself among them, to claim unreliability as a virtue?
It is done, I assure you, all in good fun, as is the author’s assertion that, because of his tendency to sample the product, he cannot be relied upon now to tell anything other than tales. And it amuses, once. But once it has been repeated for the tenth, the eleventh time, the humor fades. Indeed, by books end, it is safe to say that all of the intended humor, as well as color and insight, has faded into the California sunset.
Mr. Frank’s work is, at once, the better written of the two (“A two-day-old beard permanently clings to his face like playground sand, and in the early mornings, his hair glows ethereal orange.”) and the more labored. An artificiality of language and emotion pervade life on Pot Farm to the extent that, perhaps finally acknowledging the dreaded meta-ness of it all about three quarters of the way in, Matthew Frank writes:
“After this, feel free to blindfold the prefix meta, give it its last cigarette and fire away.”
If only we could. If only it were possible to drain the book of its self-conscious, self-reverential sense of irony. As if the author were picking marijuana ironically. As if he, and his wife, had fled the sickbed Frank’s mother, who chose to suffer her cancer without irony, and so is left behind when the two move on to other goals (picking weed, massaging those who are picking weed) and other sources of deeper, better irony.
In both books, Growgirl and Pot Farm, our memoirists stepped aside from an untenable life in order to reevaluate, re-jigger, and then return. In one case, the author, having failed miserably in her attempt at farming, finds her baker and moves on to recall and write. In the other, the author gathers up his notebooks to use them once again as shields to keep himself from having to truly write about himself even when he is his own topic.
Thus Pot Farm is mired, not in mud or by outdated laws, but by the layers of self-reference that the author, like a narrator who is standing in the margins of the book, forever dragging us back to Manderlay again, uses to keep his narrative pace at a crawl. Thus we are forced to slog through such things as this before we can read a simple account of a day off in town:
“I’m wondering here if I’m giving Norman too much attention, too much page space. Doesn’t Charlie the Mechanic or Lance or Crazy Jeff—hell, even Gloria, Hector, the German Shepard, Ruby, or Lady Wanda herself—deserve this kind of attention, presented like a series of entries in some bizarro Bartlett’s Quotations? Is there an (albeit intriguing) irrelevancy in detailing at such length our journey into town with him? I’m hoping his strange irrelevancy adds spice, and thus makes these scenes relevant.”
Would that the words, sentences, and paragraphs of Pot Farm were as resin-drenched as we are told. It would have mellowed the thing, allowed some consciousness to stream. Instead, this book in praise of pot is tightly wound, and altogether too insistent on not just telling a wicked good story, but instead insists on dazzling the reader with its insouciant, yet majestic prose, locked into “new” forms of storytelling that were old ten years ago. Which is, if you think about it, rather ironic.