Margo Jefferson has lived in the thrall of a cast of others—her parents and maternal grandmother, jazz luminaries, writers, artists, athletes, and stars. These are the figures who thrill and trouble her, and who have made up her sense of self as a person and as a writer. In her follow-up to Negroland, Jefferson brings these figures to life in a memoir that is also a performance of the elements that make and occupy the mind of one of our foremost critics.
If Margo Jefferson had gone into another profession — cabinetmaking, let’s say — she’d be the type to draw and redraw plans for a cabinet, build and tinker with the cabinet, stand back to look at the cabinet from every angle, probe the purpose of woodworking...disassemble her own product and start from scratch with alternative tools, creating an object that no longer resembled a cabinet but performed all the functions of one in startling ways ... This is the spirit in which her second memoir, Constructing a Nervous System, proceeds. Her experiment is instantly effective ... Her new book begins by cross-examining what...'me' consists of, posing the question of how to author a memoir when you chafe against the concept of authority. Two solutions come to mind. One, go mad. Two, redraw the boundaries of the genre ... This is a book for deep submergence, not quick flipping. This is appointment reading ... It takes a strong sensibility to make all of this jump-cutting not only coherent but hypnotic. Jefferson’s sensibility is one of exquisitely personal engagement with art ... Jefferson writes about craving 'license' as a young woman, dispensation to play 'with styles and personae deemed beyond my range.' She has...grabbed hold of that permission slip and torn it to shreds.
Rather than using her life’s narrative to structure the book, she organizes her becoming through her models. Who, she asks herself, were those people she secreted away? In whose eyes did she see herself reflected? The collection is unorthodox ... Memoir, the highest form of autofiction, is an unmannerly genre. Its appeal lies in its indecency. Jefferson’s indecency lies in her honesty about the contortions into which black intellectuals have long been forced ... Jefferson doesn’t shy away from her attraction to certain artists who might otherwise have earned her disavowal. She is at her most dexterous when discussing two otherwise unrelated giants: Ike Turner and Willa Cather ... The book is a marvel as a work of criticism and would serve well as a manual for writing, in the sense of teaching the practice as a means of thinking. As in Negroland, Jefferson circles back on herself, questioning, clarifying, and complicating her own intentions. She works through what cannot quite be expressed ... The brilliance of the culture we have shaped is not dimmed by the pressure of Jefferson’s interrogation. What’s left is something awe-inspiring, but more fractious, more prone to false starts and massive leaps. Its power demands such criticism, such insistent questioning.
Margo Jefferson’s new memoir is a pleasing reminder that we have not quite seen it all. And Jefferson delivers her surprises in fewer than 200 potent pages ... The distinguished thinker...shoves aside old ideas about memoir as mere biography. Her approach is an almost poetic presentation of fragments of her experiences as they ricocheted off artists whose work and lives she has found meaningful. It’s an extraordinary reading experience — the first book I recall wanting to reread immediately after reaching the end ... She lures us into a dreamy and peripatetic journey of the mind and heart. She uses her elegant voice and some theater lingo to persuade us to focus on her nuanced ideas about race, class identity and, to some extent, family ... Jefferson exudes charisma on the page with a voice that commands attention almost regardless of content ... Constructing a Nervous System offers the reader an opportunity to become comfortable with the discomfort of life’s contradictions ... Constructing a Nervous System is a diary that often stops to directly address the reader. It’s a stage performance and maybe a therapy session. Above all, it is meaningful cultural criticism. Jefferson invites us to rethink our experiences with art while finding resonance in intimacies that she shares from her own life. I still can’t say I know exactly how she manages to make this all succeed. I only know that she does, and it is splendid.