Marc Maron’s new book, Attempting Normal, comes to us at an interesting and pivotal moment in his life. After two and a half decades of toiling in relative obscurity, the forty-nine year-old comic finally seems to be getting his due. His wildly popular and groundbreaking WTF podcast is closing in on its 400th episode and only getting better. This Friday sees the debut of the IFC series Maron, a show loosely based on the neurosis-fueled chaos that is his life. And now, at long last, after countless hours sweating it out on stage in half-filled B rooms and dive bars to frequently apathetic audiences, the comic who on his third album bitterly described himself as "a marginalized act" and "a little known thing" is drawing large and devoted crowds as a touring stand-up. For close to four years, the Maron resurrection has been materializing at an accelerated clip and he now seems poised on the verge of another breakthrough.
Doubtless there are few people on this planet who have spilled out as much of their autobiography as Maron has through his twice weekly podcast—and almost certainly no one who has so consistently scoured the trenches of their soul and psyche as deeply or with such raw articulateness. Since he began WTF in 2009, Maron has become renowned for excavating the lives of others, but something else significant has been happening during the millions of instances that his frenetic, caffeinated voice has been downloaded onto iPhones around the world. Listeners have grown to know Maron on an intensely—and sometimes uncomfortably—intimate level. They've borne witness in real time to the evolving life of a person they've never met, been present with him in triumph and defeat, had the privilege of knowing him at his best and experienced—borrowing a phrase from Norman Mailer—the pleasure of liking him at his worst.
Some of the most engaging moments of WTF occur during the introduction with Maron alone in his garage spewing out an improvised monologue for an invisible audience waiting out in the digital ether. It’s a unique and remarkable achievement, and Attempting Normal is a fitting and enlightening entry in this ongoing exploration of a soul. The book is a collection of essays and vignettes that come together as a memoir. For Maron, personal history isn't a streamlined, chronological affair. He seems to view life as the early shattering of identity followed by the adult task of cobbling together some sort of functioning personality from the recovered surviving shards.
"My life has been a series of attempts at creating a self that fit somewhere," he explains early on before guiding us through the scattered detritus of his life, including his strained relationship with pornography, his hard-won friendships with his cats, and the carnage of two divorces. Those familiar with Maron’s work will immediately recognize his inimitable style—his punchy combativeness, his unbridled excitement for the authentic, his ability to see the mythic dimensions of people and events. But at times there is something else at play within the prose that’s not as often on display on WTF or in his stand-up. Attempting Normal is incredibly funny, but an aura of quiet, deeply pained regret infuses some of the passages. With respect to his first wife Maron writes, "I would lie in bed blasted on coke with my heart exploding out of my chest, next to somebody sleeping comfortably, and I wanted to wake her up to tell her I was dying but I would've rather just died." And about the day he knew his marriage to wife number two was doomed he mournfully reveals, "There is nothing worse than the feeling that you have lost your love and she is standing right in front of you."
One senses that this sentiment also holds true for Maron’s relationship with comedy. As a young man he was seduced by the world of stand-up, the only environment that allowed him to define himself on his own terms so that he might move through the world without falling apart. "I only felt comfortable with people who were missing the same pieces of themselves that I was," explains Maron about his attraction to the wild and sordid characters that populated the comedy universe he entered out of college. "The rebels and outlaws, fuckups and con men—comics—had figured it out. They knew the tricks to get by and get life and get what they needed through charm and device, without feeling the pain of not being whole or the injustice of need."
Most of the pages do not explicitly discuss Maron’s career in comedy—perhaps because it’s delved into so often on his podcast—but Attempting Normal is at its core the memoir of a stand-up because Maron is at his core a stand-up that never stopped trying or wanting to be a stand-up even when the market forcefully dictated that he should. Just a few short years ago he was "broke, defeated, and careerless." Attempting Normal is written from the perspective of somebody whose life was in large part both destroyed and saved by comedy, someone who cares deeply about stand-up’s history and codes, culture and community.
In fact, reading Attempting Normal brings to mind Steve Martin’s landmark memoir Born Standing Up—both for how exceptional and contrasting the two narratives are. Martin wrote from the distance of a few decades about a life he walked away from after unrivaled success. Maron speaks to us from within the eye of the hurricane about a past still nipping at his heels and a life he is still fighting for. "We comics are out there at the front lines of our sanity," he writes, risking "all sense of security and the possibility of living stable lives to do comedy." So what will become of Marc Maron in the near and distant future? Will his new television show take off? After close to three decades on stage, will he become known first and foremost as a stand-up? It is, of course, impossible to predict. But those familiar with how Maron operates can guess that it will probably be a mess and it will also probably somehow be okay. All we can do is hope that he continues to share it all with us.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.