A Daughter Rediscovers Her Deceased Father's Life In 'Negative Space'
Lilly Dancyger's Negative Space is a double biography that tells Dancyger's story while simultaneously discovering her dead father's life.
At once an exploration of grief and a literary séance in which the author speaks to her father through art and interviews with his friends and exes, this book is also a coming-of-age narrative where grief and anger become a path that leads to destruction, addiction and, ultimately, redemption.
Dancyger remembers her childhood as happy. She grew up around positive people, parents who were creative and encouraged her to be the same, and she was always surrounded by art. However, the heroin addiction her parents struggled with, their split, and her father's death — which wasn't from an overdose — eclipsed that auspicious beginning.
Joe Schactman, Dancyger's father, was a free spirit who hitchhiked around the country, turned roadkill into art, and constantly strived to develop a self-sustaining lifestyle. An artist who worked in many mediums and transformed discarded things, Schactman was part of the 1980s East Village art scene. However, the mark he left on his daughter, who idolized him, was far bigger — so his untimely death at 43 from undetermined causes changed Dancyger's life forever.
Grieving from her father's death, entering the maelstrom of emotions and changes that come with adolescence, and living with a mother who never managed to control her and was busy battling her own demons, Dancyger's teens were spent between rage and sorrow. She dropped out of school, moved away at 16, developed a cocaine habit, and drank regularly. However, she survived, got her GED, and went to college. More importantly, she became a journalist, and that allowed her to approach her father's story with a different frame of mind. The result is this book, in which friends' accounts, Dancyger's own memories — and Schactman's sculptures, prints and paintings — create a map the author uses to navigate her past and her father's life and legacy.
Dancyger loved her father and that love drives this narrative. She considered him "as blameless as a saint" and emulated him in everything she could. His death was devastating and left her reeling, trying to find herself in a world in which the presence of her father's absence seemed bigger and more important than anything else. After the chaos, once Dancyger starts to actively fill in the holes her memories and her father's notebooks left, which were plenty, she (re)discovers him, unveils new truths, and learns to read his life in the art he left behind. The process is cathartic and painful, and the result is a book in which her feelings are so raw and exposed that it's impossible not to feel them too.
The beauty of Negative Space, which jumps back and forth in time to slowly reveal Schactman's life as well as Dancyger's, is that the author's retelling pushes against the boundaries of what we understand as a biography — and turns the narrative into a something like a whodunit, a supernatural thriller in which a journalist interrogates a ghost, a story in which art speaks about the past eloquently, and a biography of how a writer came to be and a daughter learned to live with something that shaped her early life and then shaped her again.
Dancyger talks about the need to make this book so she could make her grief "tangible, so it would exist somewhere outside of me and I wouldn't have to drag its weight with me always." However, much more than grief ends up in these pages; every step of growing up and her important realizations are here. For example, Dancyger struggled to accept that her recreational use of cocaine was an addiction:
"I also convinced myself that cocaine was harmless compared to heroin. For the most part I did try anything I could get my hands on – I took random prescription pills just to see what would happen, dropped acid whenever the opportunity arose, smoked crack in the bathroom of the knitting factory...but heroine was the one leap I couldn't bring myself to take. It was the bright line that separated fun from danger; as long as I didn't cross it, I would be fine."
Negative Space features Schactman's artwork throughout. Photos of his sculptures and paintings bring his story to life and, through Dancyger's contextualization, they speak loudly about the way they represented whatever was going on in his life when he created a piece or entered a period in which a color palette or theme took over. As Dancyger's tangles with her father's memory, writes their memoir, and explores the significance of her artistic inheritance by illuminating her past and the darkest corners of her father's life, readers acquire a love and respect for both Schactman's work as well as the author's — and that's something anyone who reads this will know he would have been proud of.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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