"The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free," Liz Phair declared in her 1993 song "Strange Loop."
The song, which appeared on her debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, was a fitting introduction to the Chicago-raised singer-songwriter — Phair was serving notice that she was unwilling to be anyone other than herself, and if people didn't approve of her sexually frank and defiantly profane lyrics, or her lo-fi sensibility, they were more than welcome to listen to something else.
Phair has built her career on defying expectations. Ten years after Exile in Guyville, she released a self-titled pop album that horrified indie-rock snobs, and never seemed to care — once again, she was doing things her way. And as her new book, Horror Stories, proves, she still is. The book is an unconventional rock memoir that doesn't hew to the genre's norms. And like her entire musical catalog, it's honest, original and absolutely remarkable.
Many memoirs by rock musicians are marked by either self-serving braggadocio or humblebragging about how they managed to make good. In Horror Stories, Phair takes a very different tack — she spotlights some of the darker moments in her life. "It's about the small indignities we all suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures that we make toward one another," she explains. "Horror can be found in brief interactions that are as cumulatively powerful as the splashy heart-stoppers, because that's where we live most of our lives."
The form of Phair's memoir is similar to an essay collection that jumps back and forth in time, with each chapter detailing an incident in her life. The book opens with a story about a party she attended her first year in college, when she encountered a passed-out woman in a bathroom, and failed to help her. "We can be monsters, we human beings, in the most offhand and cavalier ways," she writes, with an honesty that's almost shocking.
Another chapter details the birth of her child after a difficult 32-hour labor. She writes openly about her feelings about the changes in her body, and the experience of having a room full of strangers gazing at her as she delivers her son. Her account of the birth is free of vanity, and it's also, at times, quite funny — particularly when she's recounting the surreal experience of having her anesthesiologist ask her what guitar she uses as she's trying to deliver her child.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows her songs, Phair writes about love and sex with a refreshing frankness. In one chapter, she details an affair she had, and doesn't spare herself her own judgment. "I wrecked my marriage, and he wrecked his — essentially for nothing," she writes. "We both wholly and totally suck as human beings, and we know it." Later in the book, she writes about the dissolution of another relationship with straightforward but beautiful prose:
"Losing love can turn you into a ghost in your own life. You go to all the same places, do the same things, but you're not really there. ... You're physically present, but emotionally, you're in some parallel dimension from which you cannot escape, no matter how hard you try. Time will refasten what's come unmoored inside you."
Much of the attention given to Horror Stories will likely focus on her chapter about the #MeToo movement, which details in part her working relationship with one unnamed male singer-songwriter. It's a powerful chapter about, as she writes, "being female in the entertainment industry can sometimes feel like running a never-ending gauntlet of horny dudes." She writes about her own experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and ends with a call to action that doesn't mince words:
"What I want is for the whole fabric of society to improve. I'm tired of women having to call out men for their violence against us. Police your own damn selves. You do these awful things to us, and then it's somehow our responsibility to get you to change."
There are so many things to admire about Horror Stories, it's hard to list them all. It's a memoir with an original and fascinating structure — Phair recognizes that a chronological account of her life could only go so far in explaining how she became the person she is. She mostly avoids writing about her own songs, and while this may seem to be an odd choice, it's actually quite refreshing — her music, she seems to indicate, can speak for itself.
But the real star of Horror Stories is Phair's elegant but unpretentious writing, which proves she's as adept at writing prose as she is at writing songs. And anyone familiar with her music knows how great a thing that is. It's a truly wonderful memoir, and a rare look into, as she writes, "the haunting melodies I hear over and over again in my head."