Review On "My Father's Guitar" by Joseph Skibell

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My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things by Joseph Skibell

Review by Emily Faison

All authors expect their readers to suspend disbelief when picking up a book, but Joseph Skibell tests the boundaries of that expectation with the blurb “true stories” emblazoned on the front cover directly beside the title phrase “Other Imaginary Things.” 

Are these true stories completely imagined? Does “imaginary” negate truth anyway? From the start, readers must trust Skibell’s narrator, even when he admits in the first chapter that “memory and imagination are two converging rivers, that I tend to misremember things or, more probably, make them up.” Skibell’s narrator begs us to confront the way human memory functions, particularly in terms of family history. Which is more true: the collective memory of a family, or the memory of an individual? 

Colorful anecdotes about family and personal past make this book feel like a memoir, but outrageous mini-chapters frequently interrupt, like one-page story about the author finding Paul McCartney’s phone number. Memories of parking tickets and a kid’s contest prize salt the collection with hints of believability that lull the reader into trusting Skibell in spite of Paul McCartney’s phone number and an caped uncle named Tiger. The absurdity of those details remind readers of the contract they signed when they picked up the book—to believe that even “imaginary things” can be “true stories.” 

In one passage, Skibell reflects on his adult relationship with his brother, Ethan, but his description mirrors the relationship of this book to its reader. Skibell notes that he and his brother, Ethan, are “two variations on the same genetic theme,” just as this collection of stories are Skibell’s personal variations of his family’s mythology. The book introduces readers to the “lifetime of references—familial, cultural, personal” that Skibell and Ethan share, expecting readers to keep up as the author rapidly mentions names and faces in his stories. As readers continue, they will learn the author’s intonation and humor, and like Ethan, the reader is expected to “turn on a dime, leaping from reference to reference, following [Skibell] into an imaginary world.”

Though it is uncertain whether the world is imaginary or real, or if it even matters, Skibell’s language and humor are both underplayed (imaginary) and concrete (very real). The sunset viewed from indoors becomes a “Rothko-like rectangle of orange adobe wall” while an email is an “e-pistle.” Other instances of humor are set up in longer stories centered on misunderstanding of memory, communication, and even identity, all of which are fundamental in a family narrative. In one particularly amusing breakup scene from Skibell’s past, a shouted name is the most significant key to the story, in keeping with Skibell’s Jewish heritage and literary tradition. 

As Skibell leads the reader through his winding family tree, a theme of music ties the whole collection together. Skibell opens his book with a charming mismemory of a guitar gifted from his father, a chapter that sets the tone for the rest of the book to follow. Though the author clearly remembers a beautiful guitar his father gave him, it turns out that guitar wasn’t the one his father gave him at all! These vividly inaccurate memories, along with embellished tales, become the verse and chorus of a family mythology the Bard-Skibell sings to the reader.

If myths are the stories people tell each other to understand their origins, whether factually true or not, then Skibell’s collection is certainly pieces of a mythology for his own family tree.

Kathryn ArwoodComment