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16th of November 2018

Books



“Small Fry,” Reviewed: Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s Mesmerizing, Discomfiting Memoir

In her new memoir, “Small Fry,” Lisa Brennan-Jobs, one of Steve Jobs’s daughters, stresses how she relished the company of the Apple co-founder. She makes much of their sporadic roller-skating expeditions, and of the time he surprised her by crashing her class field trip to Japan. In a recent Times profile, she worried aloud that her book doesn’t do enough to capture Jobs’s one-of-a-kind fatherliness. “Have I failed in fully representing the dearness and the pleasure?” she asked. “The dearness of my father, and the outrageous pleasure of being with him when he was in good form?”

To answer: yes, she does fail, if rendering Jobs as dear and pleasurable were ever really her aim. Steve Jobs was a man of many foibles, in ways we’ve long known about and in ways that are newly revealed in this book. He denied his paternity of Lisa until he was sued for child-support payments. He was, Brennan-Jobs alleges, a wellspring of sexually inappropriate comments. (She says that he wondered aloud at the breakfast table whether his daughter would grow up to look like Brooke Shields. “It gave me a strange feeling when he talked of the beauty of other women,” she recalls, “the longing in his voice when he talked of blonde hair or of breasts, gesturing weights in his cupped hands.”) She claims that he ignored her and kicked her out of family portraits. She spent her childhood ping-ponging between her mom’s place (Chrisann Brennan lived for stretches on welfare benefits) and her dad’s mansions: cavernous, barely furnished, with unused swimming pools and empty aviaries. (“A friend gave me a peacock once,” Steve tells Lisa, “but it wandered off.”) Brennan-Jobs admires her father’s brilliance and charisma, but her memoir elicits little sympathy for him, and “Small Fry,” a book of no small literary skill, is confused and conflicted, angry and desperate to forgive. Its central, compelling puzzle is Brennan-Jobs’s continuing need to justify not just her father’s behavior but her longing for his love. It is a mesmerizing, discomfiting reading.

Brennan-Jobs’s attempt to take control of some modest part of the Steve Jobs myth has almost inevitably unfolded in ways that reinscribe his power, both over his family and a reverent public. Laurene Powell Jobs, his widow, and Mona Simpson, his sister, released a statement rejecting Brennan-Jobs’s account: her “portrayal of Steve is not the husband and father we knew,” they wrote. (Simpson’s co-signing of the statement completes a reversal: Brennan-Jobs says that she reeled with hurt when her aunt published the novel “A Regular Guy,” a thinly veiled lampoon of Jobs that featured a highly sympathetic Lisa stand-in.) The statement’s appeal to family loyalty, to closing ranks, underscores what is implicit throughout this memoir: the tantalizing possibility that Jobs’s cruelties also manifested his love. Nowhere is this clearer in “Small Fry” than in the faux mystery of the namesake of the Apple Lisa computer: he names one of his early masterpieces after his daughter, but denies it and denies it again; when he finally acknowledges the obvious, Lisa is twenty-seven, and he doesn’t admit it to her directly—he admits it to Bono, whose villa they are visiting in the South of France.

The book is as attentive to the women united and set at odds by their dependence on Jobs as it is to Jobs himself. “Small Fry” begins as a study of the relationship between Lisa and Chrisann, a tornado who cherishes her daughter but resents their difficult life; Steve is more an aching absence and a whiff of celebrity than a character. By the time Lisa is in middle school, Chrisann and Lisa’s fights grow so intense that Lisa moves in with her father and his new wife. Laurene, Brennan-Jobs writes, likes to call people “losers,” forming an L shape with her thumb and index finger. Laurene and Steve sometimes make out in front of Lisa, “moaning theatrically, as if for an audience.” When Lisa cries during a family therapy appointment, Laurene is impassive, saying, “We’re just cold people.” But Brennan-Jobs insists that she found her stepmother infuriating “because of the immensity of the job I had in mind for her. . . . I hoped she would fix our family, pry my father open, demand his full heart and attention and get him to acknowledge what he’d missed.” This is an admission of guilt—the mature Lisa accepts responsibility for the ways that her stepmother hurt and alienated her, which were caused by her own unreasonable expectations for the adults who had power over her. The near-apology sits uneasily alongside passages that trace the contortions she put herself through as a teen-ager: “I was unsure of my position in the house, and this anxiety—combined with a feeling of immense gratitude so overwhelming I thought I might burst—caused me to talk too much, compliment too much, to say yes to whatever they asked, hoping my servile quality would ignite compassion, pity, or love.”

Some autobiographies double as acts of self-assertion, opportunities for the author not only to express her side of the story but also to display forgiveness, resilience, strength. But Brennan-Jobs’s book seems more wounded than triumphant; it can feel like artfully sculpted scar tissue. Strafed by repeated rejections, the young Lisa retreats into “another magical identity, an extra thing that started to itch and tingle when I felt small.” In “Small Fry,” there is a slippage between the two Lisas, a beguiling loss of distinction between the work of juvenile self-building and the work of memoir. The book often reads as a chronicle of pain, and of compensatory strategies—when her father mistreats her, Brennan-Jobs charms him, or appeases him, or lashes out. These dual conflicts with her parent and within herself often materialize in the text as surreal flights of passive aggression—she carefully itemizes offenses against her and then pointedly refuses to condemn them. When Chrisann asks Steve to buy a house for Lisa and herself and he buys it for his new girlfriend instead, Lisa affects feeling shame about her own hubris. Brennan-Jobs’s introspection has a frantic edge, as if she were still the seven-year-old girl who’d shown up to school in a too-thin dress and tried to distract her friends by spinning. “I kept twirling fast,” she recalls. “If I stopped, everyone would see that I was almost naked.” There is another assumption here, one that was conditioned by a difficult upbringing and that is inherent in publishing a memoir, no matter who you are: that everyone is watching and harshly judging.

Jobs eventually judges himself. He even apologizes. “I wish I could go back,” he sobs, stricken by cancer. “I wish I could change it.” His adult child writes in response that she grieves “our missed chance at friendship,” and the tender scene ends. Brennan-Jobs appears on the cover of her book as a girl’s outline, filled with flowers. The graphic promises regeneration and completion. The man who stares out from the famous Walter Isaacson biography is fierce, expectant. The photograph is so iconic that it looks like an iteration of itself, one of many billboards on a road with no off-ramp.

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