Things the Grandchildren Should Know, By Mark Oliver

A revealing and poignant memoir is marred by bursts of grouchy, rock-star posturing

The title of this attractively packaged memoir suggests one of those supposedly inspirational but horribly cloying collations of the kind of conventional wisdom which the author vainly hopes readers will wish to pass on from one generation to the next. Yet Things the Grandchildren Should Know is the opposite: it's a mordant and ornery little book, outlining one man's personal road-map through the desolate landscape of familial absence.

The mechanism by which Everett is left alone to contemplate his existential responsibilities starts not quite routinely, but certainly in a manner that is less than exceptional. His father, a theoretical physicist who corresponded with Einstein in his teens, but ended up working for the Pentagon and filling his basement with guns and dried food, dies young, his only son discovering the body. The pace of Everett's encroaching genetic isolation then quickens to an almost absurd extent.

In rapid succession, his alcoholic sister commits suicide, his mother dies of cancer, and then (in a cruel twist) a favourite cousin and her husband are flight attendants on the plane which al Qa'ida terrorists crash into the building their uncle used to work in. There is something genuinely moving about the undemonstrative sincerity with which Everett alternately confronts and manages not to be caught up in the enormity of these events. But the author's experience of multiple bereavements is – perhaps regrettably – just one of the three strings that this book has to its bow. There are also his early years as a teenage rebel and later life as a mid-ranking rock star to be considered.

As the singer and songwriter with the suitably slippery LA rock group Eels (I know a "The" would help, but the subject of this autobiography has made not making life easy for people his life's work), Mark Oliver Everett, or "E", as his friends and family know him, is, by his own admission, "not a really famous guy". But the modesty inherent in that professional self-assessment is sadly lacking in this account of his formative years. Too often he misdiagnoses such traditional displays of adolescent solipsism as reading Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man while listening to John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band as symptoms of a unique level of alienation.

His parents may have been distant and emotionally uncommunicative, but they did buy him not only a puppy, but also a drum kit. Everett's reminiscences of the sexual and narcotic high jinks of his high-school years are extensive enough to compromise his attempts to present himself as a loner, but insufficiently colourful to afford the reader much vicarious enjoyment. His self-dramatising tendencies reach a zenith in the chapter about how "crazy" many of his girlfriends have been. Apparently, one of them was so nuts that she once slammed a door during an argument and broke a mirror.

There's something quite touching about Everett's lack of perspective on which elements of his life story are remarkable and which are mundane. But the quiet dignity with which he responds to the myriad tragedies of early middle age (the afore-mentioned sadly deceased being just the first names on a seemingly endless scroll of fallen friends and loved ones) is somewhat undermined by the relentlessness with which he moans about everything else.

For all his folksy, sardonic, vaguely Vonnegutian prose style, those who have always found Everett's music slightly depressing will not need to look far for possible explanations of why this should have been the case. "That could be the next Hitler for all we know," he exclaims sourly, on being invited to attend the birth of a friend's baby.

Looking back on the pop career which offered Everett not only a very good living, but also global acclaim and the opportunity for unlimited self-expression seems to bring out an especially grouchy side of him, whether he's grumbling about the "inappropriateness" of Johnny Cash's brilliant American Recordings albums, or tearing a strip off John Legend for having the temerity to ask him to extinguish his cigar at a recording of Later... with Jools Holland. There are times – notably while mithering bewilderedly about his "difficult" reputation in the "industry" – when Everett achieves the seemingly impossible feat of generating sympathy for Hollywood record executives.

By the end of this flawed but entertaining memoir, though, only a first-class curmudgeon would deny him the right to his concluding onstage epiphany. Yet Pete Townshend's assertion that this is "one of the best books ever written by a contemporary artist" should still be taken with a measure of seasoning. And that's before you've even asked yourself how it would be possible for a book to be written by a non-contemporary artist.

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