Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg
It’s No Puzzle: A Memoir in Artifact
by Cris Mazza
192 Pp.; $20, Paper, March 2023, ISBN-13 : 978-1956005653
Cris Mazza’s latest book, It’s No Puzzle: A Memoir in Artifact is more than a personal journey of recognition and enlightenment. Applying an academic’s thoroughness, Mazza’s genealogy creates a microcosm from which to view larger slices of American life. While cleaning out her parents’ home in 2016 after the death of her mother, she discovers a wealth of information regarding family history. She revisits post WWII America in Southern California where she was born and digs for deeper meanings in a complex time that saw the growth of the middle class and new opportunities in a prosperous country but also uncovers contradictions hidden beneath the surface of a growing imperial power. The conflicts of economics, class distinctions, racial strife, and women’s rights all hover within the dark shadows of the American Dream. Coupled with the complexities of individual family dynamics, it all ultimately offers insights into the very personal theme of Mazza’s struggles with identity, gender dysphoria, and androgyny. These essays probe the very essence of identity in our private lives and in our greater participation in the world.
Mazza delves into the political and cultural landscapes of The Civil Rights Movement, racial tensions, war protests, and women’s rights. Still, the main correlation is personal. Her recognition of ongoing struggles and current disenchantment with the state of the country is exemplified in her observation of Barak Obama’s ascendancy as President. She states, “Naturally, in 2008, I would assume it was finally happening.” Obama “walked onto a stage in the same Chicago Grant Park that had seen the 1968 riots, to greet crowds celebrating his election as President.” Mazza sadly recognizes, “The warless world, the hateless society, the healed environment…didn’t happen.” Then after the November 2016 election, she laments that she “needed a new method to recede, to let my brain imagine living in another era and elsewhere” as respite from the national and global turmoil.
As Mazza reviews her family history she sees, “Lives being moved, morphed, maneuvered, maintained, managed between 1895 and 1935. Lives already lived. In reverie: re-dramatized, re-traveled, re-invented re-invigorated.” Yet she admits the project creates an examination of others “instead of doing the same to my own.” She references a time when her mother was on a cruise and had taken a small excursion boat that sank. Rescued and watching the boat go down, she lamented that her camera was on the boat, and it prevented her from recording the event. There’s a sort of removed observation that overshadows emotional responses mirrored in Mazza’s own and an admission that the memoir provides deflection from herself. It could lead her down a path of profound personal introspection. However, she mostly manages to keep this at arm’s length, drawing back when emotions bubble to the surface. She readily admits this was “a compartmentalized avoidance of grief,” that manifests on many levels. While she digs deep into the past, it’s the emotional life that remains to be exhumed. This memoir is as revealing for its restraint as it is in its relentless pursuit of details as well as Mazza’s self-recognition of backing away just as she reaches the brink of deeper reflection. It asks us to consider how we protect ourselves from painful feelings and substitute, even reconstitute, memories to make them palatable.
Difficulty expressing feelings is a direct inheritance of the past, and she struggles with how to interpret familial, societal, and cultural accountability for her gender dysphoria. As she became older, Mazza adopted an androgynous look. She wanted boys to like her without “feminine conformity.” She saw the categories of female or male as restrictive to her as a person. There was no template for non-binary choices. Mazza considered options to remain androgynous but also desired relationships with males. Being lesbian held no interest for her, especially given her abhorrence of female anatomy. She wanted things on her own terms and even saw men as potential defenders of her from sex. Eventually, she saw being male in a less than idealistic light. It is more about the challenges of being branded or characterized by one’s gender that is the issue, and both men and women are victims of preconceived definitions and expectations. Choosing one over the other does not necessarily solve the problem of identity. Mazza has been consistently forthcoming in acknowledging issues with heritage, sexuality, and identity. She’s discussed this in her writing, in interviews, and in 2016 co-produced and starred in an independent film Anorgasmia, which is a sexual dysfunction whereby a person is unable to achieve orgasm. Her work is multi-layered and explores the limbo of interior life and external realities and the fascinating space where both intersect. When the Chicago Tribune interviewed her upon the publication of Something Wrong With Her, she eschewed the “triumphant quality in a lot of memoirs” whereby the author goes from trauma to a new conquering self. She stated, “The person writing this book is not finished with the subject, not at all.”
To Mazza’s credit, she doesn’t tie up thoughts into neat little conclusions or justify her detachment. The journey to bury herself in the memorabilia of the past coupled with the isolation of the pandemic created a space for Mazza to aim her focus in a more myopic manner and to deal with grief that simmers below the surface yet doesn’t rise into full blown expression. In most cases, photos and documents become a way to validate everyone’s lives after death claims them. Mazza sees the irony in this and remarks that the camera appears to be more of a “partner” creating hard evidence of one’s existence. Sharing photos with relatives and friends was a way “to have seen the same thing” and to create “a closer bond.” Mazza and her siblings were all given cameras, and there is serious regret when film was lost or damaged. It’s as if it is safer living through artifacts instead of being present and mirrors Mazza’s own approach to the memoir. Much like the obsession of social media today, people constantly photograph and post, but it’s through a lens, a barrier, to document the past for the future. In some cases, Mazza only remembers photographs or watching “pictures” with her family. She remarks, “I don’t specifically remember the actual event(s).”
Mazza has more questions than answers, but she’s offering the gift of living with uncertainty and never giving up the search. She queries, “What causes a personal essayist to write about events long before memory, sometimes decades before birth? As I dig through earlier times, previous eras, people long dead, what do I hope this will add to my life, my identity, my perception of myself? I know there’s an answer, just not quite what it is.”
It’s No Puzzle: A Memoir in Artifact was a challenge to write and assemble with its vast cache of memorabilia. The publisher, Spuyten Duyvil Press, did an exemplary job of logistically formatting the book to its polished result. What Mazza uncovers explains her challenges even if it doesn’t quite resolve them. That’s the “no puzzle” part. What remains are the complex pieces we need to uncover and fit into a clearer vision of our lives as we continue to live them–our desire to complete the puzzle and weave a more comforting, cohesive quilt of connection. Mazza concludes, “I realize I have to seek a level of honesty I may not yet know how to locate.”
This review first appeared in The Atticus Review.
About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays, interviews, and reviews. Her second book of poetry, Out From Calaboose, was released in 2017. She lives in France. Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com