Sandra Allen’s A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise is a “true story of a boy brought up in berkeley california durring the sixties and seventies who was unable to identify with reality and was there for labeled as a paranoid schizophrenic for the rest of his life.” Sort of.
You probably notice some errors in the quote above. The words are taken from Allen’s Uncle Bob, whose memoir manuscript is the artifact discussed throughout the book. Although Uncle Bob bills his memoir as a true story, the ‘truth’ of its contents is up for a lengthy, worthwhile discussion.
The book begins when Allen gets a phone call from her “crazy” Uncle Bob. He tells her he has written the story of his life, and is eager to share it with her. The manuscript arrives in terrible condition. The pages are disheveled, stained, and the mostly-capitalized text is written with errors abounding. Initially, the memoir disturbs Allen. She hides it from herself, then after a period of feeling pestered and haunted, she gives it a read. And then another. And then she begins a “cover,” as she calls it, of Bob’s story. The product is a miraculous paradise, or rather, a MIRRACULAS PARADISE.
The book’s structure has two separate narratives. There is Bob’s piece, the memoir he writes about himself in third person. The memoir is a series of stories that explain how Bob arrived to his adulthood. At some points, it is anecdotal, and at others, it seems to be a retaliation against the way society treats the mentally ill, specifically paranoid schizophrenics. There is also Allen’s piece. As a graduate of the University of Iowa nonfiction writing program, Allen painstakingly pieces together a conversation about Uncle Bob in her own words, through history and research, and through conversations with other family members. Throughout the book, many themes arise including schizophrenia and mental illness, sexuality, racism, and the meaning of truth.
Early in the book, Allen admits she is no expert on schizophrenia, but she is able to execute a chaotic story with intriguing clarity. Transparent about her interior struggle to share some of this information, she presents herself as well-meaning and flawed, making the book honest. She writes, “It weighed on me that I hadn’t gone to visit him again, to speak openly about the potential of collaborating on this project.” Although the project is now being published, it seems to be only a glimpse of a conversation happening within Allen’s self. Because of the wide array of information and emotion this book includes, it presents the kind of conversation that goes on forever. But among the endless opportunities for discussion, one thing is concrete and that is Uncle Bob’s love for Allen.
Throughout the book, he is continually excited to be a part of her life. At large, he entrusts her with his entire story. And minutely, he cares for her and shows this in small, sensitive ways. When she announces she is going to visit his home with a group of friends, he treats them to a day of conversation and grocery store cocktail shrimp. When her birthday comes, he texts her happy birthday. Allen feels clear compassion for him in return. Her uncle wanted people to know about him, and this book sees that his desires are met.
When I lifted the book from my own mailbox and did a quick leaf-through, I felt similar to how Allen must have felt the first time she laid her hands on her uncle’s manuscript. The cover features a psychedelic, shadowy silhouette of a man—presumably Uncle Bob—smoking behind a backdrop of Courier typewritten manuscript. Among the phrases of the manuscript featured are “MY DELUSIONALE STATE OF MIND,” “I SHUT UP AND TRYED TO REST,” and “ALL MY INABITIONSD HAD LEFT ME.” Flipping through these pages, I was overwhelmed by the book’s aesthetic. It is obvious which chapters belong to which writer. The way the book is organized reflects Allen’s experience: the ability to meet a book with skepticism and find much to be admired.
In the beginning, she writes, “Many people have asked me why I did this.” At points, I wondered the same thing. Moments of Bob’s manuscript are extremely sexist and racist. Coming from Berkeley in the 1960s, educational integration is a hot topic in Bob’s recollection. Allen discusses Bob’s racism and sexism at length. She distinguishes between his mental illness and the problems of his ideology. This is important, as it is necessary to remember that negative isms do not coincide with mental illness. Oftentimes in our culture, when someone says something racist, it is written off because that person is “crazy” or “sick” or “problematic.” These interpretations not only dilute the unacceptable nature of what is said, but also attribute these negative ideologies to the mentally ill. Luckily, Allen avoids both in her retelling. Her analysis of Bob’s downfalls is astute but approachable. In her words, the way Bob describes women does not thrill her. His words give Allen a window to describe her own political ideologies tactfully.
Uncle Bob’s manuscript also has a sense of adventure. He gives mesmerizing recounts of experimenting with drugs. In one, he describes tripping on LSD and riding a bicycle, watching the stars drill holes in the sky. The way he describes his hallucinations is as factual as the rest of his book: convincing, but just far enough away from truth to question. The descriptions of drugs also ground the story in setting—California, rock ‘n’ roll, hippies. While it does not seem that drugs are the main contributor to Bob’s mental state, it is interesting to see how they impacted his journey.
And what a journey it is. By the end, I am tired, but not in a bad way. Allen admits she never has good answers to the questions around why she decided to write this. She says, “Bob described long days out on Lake L’Homme Dieu in the summers fishing. Perhaps it is as simple as Bob was a talented fisherman and I’m the guppy he caught on his line.” As a reader, I’m caught, too.