Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir (Paperback)
A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • From "one of our most nuanced thinkers on the intersections of race, class, and feminism" (Cathy Park Hong, New York Times bestselling author of Minor Feelings) comes a memoir "as electric as the title suggests" (Maggie Nelson, author of On Freedom).
A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Oprah Daily, The New Yorker, Washington Post, Vulture, Buzzfeed, Publishers Weekly
The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson has lived in the thrall of a cast of others—her parents and maternal grandmother, jazz luminaries, writers, artists, athletes, and stars. These are the figures who thrill and trouble her, and who have made up her sense of self as a person and as a writer. In her much-anticipated follow-up to Negroland, Jefferson brings these figures to life in a memoir of stunning originality, a performance of the elements that comprise and occupy the mind of one of our foremost critics.
In Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson shatters her self into pieces and recombines them into a new and vital apparatus on the page, fusing the criticism that she is known for, fragments of the family members she grieves for, and signal moments from her life, as well as the words of those who have peopled her past and accompanied her in her solitude, dramatized here like never before. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are among the author’s alter egos. The sounds of a jazz LP emerge as the intimate and instructive sounds of a parent’s voice. W. E. B. Du Bois and George Eliot meet illicitly. The muscles and movements of a ballerina are spliced with those of an Olympic runner, becoming a template for what a black female body can be.
The result is a wildly innovative work of depth and stirring beauty. It is defined by fractures and dissonance, longing and ecstasy, and a persistent searching. Jefferson interrogates her own self as well as the act of writing memoir, and probes the fissures at the center of American cultural life.
About the Author
MARGO JEFFERSON lives in New York City.
WINNER OF THE FOLIO PRIZE
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE FINALIST
A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK: The New York Times, TIME, Los Angeles Times, Vulture, Observer, Vanity Fair, Bustle, Buzzfeed, and more
“An elegantly structured, ambitious work of cultural criticism.”
—Roxane Gay, “My 2022 in Reading”
“The cadence of [Jefferson’s] writing is like chasing after the origins of jazz. It’s smooth and rough all at the same time. Free-flowing, yet meticulously calculated. Incredibly Black, incredibly cool. There is a velocity to her prose that can feel like it is circling prey, and the prey is passive comfort.”
— Okayplayer, “Five Great Memoirs By People of Color Released in 2022”
“In her second memoir, Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson brilliantly interrogates and expands the form. . . . What emerges is a carefully woven tapestry of American life, brought together by Jefferson’s lyrical and electric prose.”
— TIME, “The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2022”
“With gorgeous writing and indelible insight, this singular work defies categorization. . . . a beautiful place to spend time in.”
— Oprah Daily, “Our Favorite Books of the Year”
“The book’s title is a sly description of Jefferson’s project, with “nervous system” referring to the materials — “chosen, imposed, inherited, made up” — that jumble together into an identity. The book is part rumination on the nature of memoir, part traditional autobiography and — always — an engagement with art, including that of Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
— The New York Times, “100 Notable Books of 2022”
“Shoving aside old ideas about memoir as mere biography... [Jefferson] exudes charisma on the page with a voice that commands attention, drawing us into her thoughts about particular artists she admired in youth and then saw anew with the perspective of age.”
— The Washington Post, “The 10 Best Books of 2022”
“Drawing on material as disparate as Henry James, The Wire, Othello, and Black spirituals, [Jefferson] narrates moments of her life as they unfold in relation to “avatars”. . . . “Great soloists never perform entirely alone,” Jefferson writes, and the same is true for her.”
— The New Yorker, “The Best Books of 2022 So Far”
“[A] moving excavation of Black female identity. . . . Through autobiographical fragments and sharp cultural commentary, Jefferson delivers an innovative interrogation of the intersections of race and class.”
— Publishers Weekly, “Best Books 2022”
“This is a book for deep submergence, not quick flipping. This is appointment reading. Clear the schedule and commit . . . Hypnotic. . . Ravishing and rigorous . . . in an artistic tradition that includes Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman: ruthless self-excavation that is scrupulously free of solipsism . . . [Jefferson] has—along with other recent innovators in the form . . . grabbed hold of that permission slip and torn it to shreds.”
—Molly Young, The New York Times
“Enrapturing . . . [Jefferson] roams through the crevices of her mind, through its makings, fixations, and perceived shortcomings . . . she bins her gentility for something sharper. Tending her envy, tallying slights both personal and historical, indulging her gloomier moods: the well-comported girl no more.”
—Jasmine Sanders, Vulture
“An extraordinary reading experience—the first book I recall wanting to reread immediately after reaching the end . . . [Jefferson] lures us into a dreamy and peripatetic journey . . . [inviting] us to rethink our experiences with art while finding resonance in intimacies that she shares from her own life. I still can’t say I know exactly how she manages to make this all succeed. I only know that she does, and it is splendid.”
—Karen Sandstrom, The Washington Post
“A tour de force.”
“[Margo Jefferson’s] new memoir takes the story forward to her formation as a critic and thinker, analyzing her heroes, influences and foils…These examinations of self double as reconsiderations of culture and society, including those artists she now sees in a far more complicated light.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson reflects on some of her most intimate memories in Constructing a Nervous System…[she] excels at deconstructing American culture, and her raw self-examination makes her work riveting.”
“An enthralling memoirist and a masterful cultural critic, Jefferson overlaps those skills in her formally improvisational and percolating new book . . . Forcefully, gracefully, ‘Constructing’ illustrates that the Black critic always enacts her interiority, self-assembly, and education publicly."
—The Boston Globe
“Margo Jefferson is one of our most nuanced thinkers on the intersections of race, class, and feminism. Her latest Constructing a Nervous System is especially alive, as if I'm listening to her think aloud. Her discursive writing is both spiky and supple; jagged and balletic; she retracts, circles around, before doubling down on pointed revelations that linger in my mind for days. It's a thrill to follow the brilliant scintillating thoughts of Margo Jefferson in Constructing a Nervous System."
—Cathy Park Hong, New York Times bestselling author of Minor Feelings
“A memoir that dazzles at the intersection of intellect and artistry . . . [Jefferson] prises apart autobiography, splits it totally open; lunges audaciously at the delusions of the American demesne; flails and impales shibboleths; and she records her findings.”
“[Jefferson] suffers no fools, flatters no one’s tastes, and delivers gusts of uncompromising prose.”
“A synthesis of memoir and criticism, this elegant collection examines the author's life through a series of vignettes tied to the artists who have shaped and molded her . . . Contemplative, personal but highly accessible, these essays explore how we construct ourselves from the world around us.”
—Holly Myers, Elliott Bay Book Co.
“Margo Jefferson’s new memoir is a raw, personal, and experimental work.”
“In her earlier autobiography, Negroland, Jefferson reflected on her upbringing in an upper middle-class Black family. Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and essayist widens her scope, surveying the artists who shaped her.”
—The New York Times
“A thoughtful mélange of criticism and memoir. . .[Jefferson’s] roving intelligence and refusal of pat conclusions make this a nuanced, thought-provoking read.”
"Jefferson is as precise and sensitive as ever, nonpareil in her scope and ability to synthesize the circus of traditions, arcs, and performances that make up a life, taking the role of stage trouper and spectator in turns…What an honor to settle in for the show alongside her."
“Exacting and ruthless but also a generous examination of the spaces where cultural history overlaps with what we consider traditional history…[Jefferson’s] sites of interrogation are so striking.”
“Constructing a Nervous System breaks the conventions [of memoir] apart: figuratively, in the frequent eclipse of the remembering “I” by a roving and interrogating eye, and literally, in the reliance on fragment as the dominant form. The result is an engaging mixture of candid self-examination and brilliantly original criticism.”
—The American Scholar
“In this beautiful “assemblage of recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and words,” Margo Jefferson has created a startling and digressive form of auto-analysis. This serial meditation on the cultural icons key to her psychic and intellectual formation, from Ella Fitzgerald sweating inelegantly in public view to Willa Cather’s queerness and worship of white skin, offers an intimate view of the aesthetic and political landscape of American culture and the secrets, longing, withholding and disavowal necessary to imagine oneself inside it and ward off its damage.”
—Saidiya Hartman, author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
"Margo Jefferson is one of the great innovators in modern autobiographical narrative. Her voice is pure, her insights original. This is a moving portrait of the life of a brilliant African American woman’s mind. She is so real, her sensibility so literary, her learning such a joy. The gifts of reading her are many."
—Darryl Pinckney, author of High Cotton and Busted in New York and Other Essays
“In a hot bebop of syntax and cultural retrieval, restrained by a cool syncopation of bemusement and contradiction – or is it grief? – Margo Jefferson accounts for a mind and soul bestowed by, among others, Topsy, Josephine Baker, Willa Cather, Bud Powell, James Baldwin, Kara Walker, even Bing Crosby. Constructing a Nervous System is raucous and new, a signal contribution, an immediate classic.”
—Honor Moore, author of Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury
“This is one of the most imaginative—and therefore moving—memoirs I have ever read. An impressive sequel to Negroland!”
—Vivian Gornick, essayist and critic
“Margo Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System is as electric as its title suggests. It takes vital risks, tosses away rungs of the ladder as it climbs, and offers an indispensable, rollicking account of the enchantments, pleasures, costs, and complexities of “imagin[ing] and interpret[ing] what had not imagined you.”
—Maggie Nelson, author of On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint
“Passion and erudition usually don’t go together, but Margo Jefferson in her often painful mediations on being black and female consults a lifelong accumulation of thoughts about high and popular culture, about historic and contemporary literature, and entertainment and politics. She knows everything and has felt it all deeply. If you want to know who we are and where we’ve been, read Margo Jefferson.”
—Edmund White, author of A Previous Life
“Thrillingly original…A fierce and fresh amalgamation of memoir and cultural criticism by one of the country’s most compelling thinkers. This slim volume is saturated with brilliance.”
—Library Journal [starred review]
“Jefferson glories in words…turning her keenly honed analysis on herself, her family, and her class, while relentlessly interrogating the broader underlying context of white racism…Like a skilled embroiderer, she blends the multicolored threads of Black cultural life with memories of her past in a memoir that is impressionistic rather than chronological.”
—Booklist [starred review]
“Bold and roving…Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Jefferson…creates a dance of memory and incisive cultural commentary that’s deeply and refreshingly personal. This gorgeous memoir elevates the form to new heights.”
—Publisher’s Weekly [starred review]
“The Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and memoirist returns with an inspired and unstinting examination of American class, culture, and personal memory. Jefferson’s unique perspective and relentless honesty and self-examination ensure that there’s something worthwhile on every page…A dynamic, unflinchingly candid examination of the impacts of race and class on culture and the author’s own life.”
—Kirkus Reviews [starred review]