Clear Pictures

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Reynolds Price’s goat, Topsy, is something like James Joyce’s moocow in that both reflect the earliest recollection of a protagonist struggling hard to reconstruct his past, something that anyone who writes autobiography must do. The difference between Price’s technique and Joyce’s is that Price, having undergone painful spinal surgery that has left him a paraplegic since 1984, sought relief through hypnosis and biofeedback from the pain that had plagued him almost constantly for three years.

The process, through which Dr. Patrick Logue of the Medical Center at Duke University—where Price is James B. Duke Professor of English—guided him, succeeded in mitigating much of Price’s pain, but in the process also put him in touch with parts of his earliest past that he had presumed were forgotten, even though he had always had the remarkable memory that is the distinguishing mark of most successful writers. Realizing the value of having his early past unlocked for him, Price continued to work with Logue, using hypnotic techniques that did not at first include memory regression, but that moved toward that technique at Price’s urging as their association continued.

An outgrowth of this technique is a book that is in many ways reminiscent of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Marcel Proust’s A La recherche du temps perdu (19134927; Remembrance of Things Past, 19224931), or of much of Eugene O’Neill’s drama, most notably Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947). Price’s book is more modest in scope than the works mentioned above, but it shares an artistic and psychological kinship with them. Just as Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea was a kind of hypnotic triggering device from which six volumes of autobiographical writing ensued, so was Price’s first exposure to medically prescribed hypnosis the triggering device for a mental search from which this volume of his autobiography has been derived.

As the book opens, Reynolds is four or five months old, lying on a white blanket on the warm grass outside his Macon, North Carolina, home after a bleak winter. The family goat, Topsy, born the same day as Reynolds, licks the baby’s face with its rough tongue and tries to eat his diaper. Whether such an early remembrance is a genuine recollection or something recalled from the lore of a talkative, storytelling family is hard to discern, and Price does not struggle to make a case for its being an actual memory of the event. Whatever its source, it fulfills admirably its purpose as a triggering device. Before long, Price has enlisted the reader as a conspirator in trying to solve the puzzle created by memories dredged up from a distant, nearly lost past.

On the first page of Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides, Price informs readers that the book is an exploration into how people learn about life, love, and death. The focus of the search is the Price family, a close entity in which Reynolds was the only child for eight years. By the time of his birth, his parents had known each other for twelve years, six before their marriage in 1927 and six after. They were a passionate, loving couple through twenty-seven years of marriage, clouded in the early years by the Great Depression and by Will’s drinking, a problem that had also afflicted other members of his family.

Reynolds’ birth was not easy. As Elizabeth lay in labor in her parents’ home in Macon, just south of the Virginia border, her doctor knew that she was in for trouble. It was a breech birth, and it appeared that both mother and child would die. Will, beside himself with concern, ran to an outbuilding and made a compact with God: He swore that if Elizabeth and the baby were spared, he would never drink again, a pledge he kept—although not immediately—until his death in 1954.

The Prices moved frequently during Reynolds’ early years. Work was scarce. Will, a salesman, went where the opportunities were best, although the thought of leaving his native North Carolina was completely out of the question. Reynolds’ parents doted on him, and he was the particular favorite of his Aunt Ida Drake, almost forty-six years older than he, one of his mother’s seven siblings, eighteen years her senior. Temperamentally, Reynolds, who often felt the need for solitude and reflection, was more like Ida, who suffered from melancholia fed by hysterical pregnancies, than like his gregarious...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In 1984, cancer of the spine left Reynolds Price a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. Thus freed, as he has explained, from many of the exigencies of routine existence (“No responsible citizen ever has the least idea of how much energy leaks away in going to the dry cleaners and catching the bus”), he began to enjoy the most productive period of his career, turning out novels, stories, poems, and plays, among them some of his best work. He did not begin--or even contemplate--this memoir, however, until 1987, when a course in hypnosis and biofeedback to relieve back pain triggered some vivid images from early childhood.

Price’s account of his boyhood and youth in North Carolina focuses on his parents, relatives, caretakers, and teachers, rendered with great affection. It is clear that, even as a boy, he was developing the habits of mind that would serve him well as a novelist, yet he is unfailingly generous to the memory of those who helped him along the way.

Price writes with an innocently oblivious narcissism which can occasionally be exasperating but which serves him well as a memoirist. CLEAR PICTURES--the text is supplemented by evocative photographs, many of them family snapshots, with commentary by Price--belongs on a shelf with Philip Roth’s THE FACTS: A NOVELIST’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY and John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS: MEMOIRS. Updike was born in 1932; Roth, like Price, in 1933. Their memoirs, published within the span of a year, offer three fascinatingly different portraits of the novelist as a young man.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXIV, May 15, 1989, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, June 4, 1989, p.10.

Newsweek. CXIV, July 17, 1989, p.54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, April 21, 1989, p.73.

Time. CXXXIV, July 10, 1989, p.62.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, June 18, 1989, p.3.