Anne Gisleson opens the door of her Bywater cottage, the visitor walks in, and then there they are — right in the middle of her new memoir, “The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading.”
This bright yellow living room, filled with art and books, is where The Existential Crisis Reading Group met for a purposeful year, looking for answers in poetry, philosophy and fiction. It’s a cheery, comfortable space that offers a shelter for the dreamer, the hoper, the searcher for answers to big questions.
In this memoir of a reading year, Anne Gisleson gives us a layered portrait of not just one woman’s rich and complicated life, but so much more: A family suffering unspeakable tragedy, a city struggling, a group of friends brought together to make common cause in making sense of life.
Over the course of the year 2012, relationships deepen or change or end, people move on, suffer successes and losses, but the search continues. There is abundant, maybe excessive, drinking. Break out the rye, readers, and pour yourselves a glass.
There is grief that would be soul-killing for anyone. Gisleson reckons with the earlier loss of her twin sisters, less than two years apart, suicides both, and the death of her father from leukemia shortly after the group gets underway. With her siblings, she undertakes those “death chores” we all face eventually, dealing with the aftermath of loss, doing the work of grief, comforting her mother, the nephew who was left behind, trying to see a way forward.
But through it all, there’s the thinking. Gisleson is a thinking woman. She has taken Walker Percy’s metaphor of the search and made it her own, calling it “the beautiful hunt,” after Belle Chasse. And in her hands, it is beautiful indeed, sparkling with fierce intelligence and sharp wit and unsparing honesty.
Such a quest would seem a natural endeavor for Gisleson, who grew up with seven siblings in a large, close and prominent Catholic family here. “My dad, (lawyer Keith ‘Eric’ Gisleson), was a fantastic storyteller,” she said, settling into a spot on her bright orange sofa. “What is being a lawyer but telling convincing stories?”
And many of the great stories in this book are about her father, known for his ability to “threaten and cajole,” as well as his compassion and loyalty to his clients, one of whom Gisleson travels to Angola to meet.
From its very epigraph, taken from Walker Percy, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…,” “The Futilitarians” is a book that is informed both by Catholicism and Percy’s searching spirit.
“I haven’t been a practicing Catholic in quite some time,” she said, “But growing up the way I did, it’s bone deep. And I’m really grateful to have a spiritual life, a way of being in the world.”
Lovers of New Orleans stories will find much to admire here, with Gisleson’s vast knowledge of and experience of the city — she’s lived Uptown, in the French Quarter, in Algiers and the Irish Channel.
Her observations of the city are spot on, as true now as in 2012: “The trap of growing up in New Orleans: you’re often preoccupied with what’s been lost while clinging to a grand, cobbled present — part wreck, part fantasy, part regular civic striving, but always under construction.”
“I resisted New Orleans so much when I was growing up,” she said. “I had to tear down those adolescent walls and embrace it, acknowledge my love for it, and Katrina was a big part of that.”
“I’m really a product of Katrina,” she continued. “I felt compelled to write, to tell a more complete version of the story — so much was being left out. It was as if I’d set out on a crusade, and I’d never had that fierce urgency before.”
Her post-Katrina writings garnered critical acclaim as they appeared in The Oxford American, where Gisleson says she is grateful to have found “a literary home.”
Another literary home for Gisleson is the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where the former student has become a teacher. She was the head of the creative writing department for several years and has taught part-time for the past 12. She is also a cofounder of the literary collectives Antenna and Press Street, so important in the post-Katrina era.
But that 1850s Bywater cottage, the home Gisleson shares with her husband, artist Brad Benischek, and their sons, Silas and Otto, is the real literary home of this memoir, a place readers will settle into for the duration and think of long after.
The Existential Crisis Reading Group still meets, perhaps less rigorously, less often, but that first intense year is the backbone of this exquisite memoir. The “reading” of the title ranges from Dante to Joyce, Elizabeth Bishop to Everette Maddox, Shel Silverstein to (of course!) Walker Percy, Arthur Koestler to Clarice Lispector. To a book person, it makes perfect sense. Where better to have an existential crisis than post-Katrina New Orleans, a city on the brink? What better remedy than a reading group?
So, in the end, did the ECRG, as Gisleson calls it, fulfill its function? Were there answers? Does she feel more hopeful?
“Hope,” she mused. “What I found most valuable about the Existential Crisis Reading Group and the writing of the book was engaging with people. Literature can be a way of positive and deep engagement with other people. All book clubs have the possibility for that to happen.”
But … does life still seem futile?
“That’s the great thing about being a Futilitarian,” she said, smiling. “You’re a lifelong member.”
Anne Gisleson reads from and signs “The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Reading, and Grieving”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 24)
Where: The Saturn Bar
3067 St. Claude Ave.
Lagniappe: George Trahanis performs songs by Jacques Brel and Michael Jeffrey Lee plays existential ballads.