Keith Richards ended up calling his memoir Life, not, as had been planned, My Life, the more conventional choice. Almost any memoir ever written could be called My Life. It’s what Bill Clinton called his own memoir. For Clinton it was a defensive, even a defiant, title, but then, memoirs are defensive by nature. To exist, they must justify their existence. Uniqueness—the “my” in “my life”—is an important condition: without it none but the first-ever memoir would have to exist. And the suspicion of insufficient uniqueness is one great nullifier of memoir: this is the problem when memoir subgenres (abuse memoirs, addiction memoirs, conversion memoirs, travel memoirs) promise to convey shock or pathos or virtue, but get their ingredients from a cake mix.
The recent crop of purloined, plagiarized, and manufactured memoirs—James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, for example—unsettled readers not because some sacred line dividing fact and fiction had been crossed, but instead, I think, because they suggested we might actually be running out of interesting lives. Aspiring memoirists may just have to start writing fiction: though there the competition to make something new and good is, if anything, even more keen.
The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time. Thus the hilariously nonchalant title, which, shorn of the expected first-person possessive, would suggest that Richards’s life is more or less the one we all experience.
At one time or another, everyone rides in a red Cadillac with the Ronettes out to Jones Beach, then wakes up on Ronnie Spector’s mother’s living room floor in Spanish Harlem, to a plate of bacon and eggs. We’ve all had the major licks of “Satisfaction” come to us in a dream, then adjourned to the pool to write the lyrics with Mick Jagger. This is the kind of thing that happens. Uschi Obermaier, the German leftist supermodel, chews off your earring in a Japanese-style hotel in Rotterdam, leaving you with a “permanent malformation” on your right earlobe. The prime minister of Canada’s wife turns up in your hotel room, looking eager to party. That’s life. Or, Life.
The surfeit of wildly nontransferable details (the earlobe-gnawing supermodel/communard, the varieties of smack, scrapes, fame, hotel rooms, speedboats, and Bentleys) is nearly comic, in a book whose title professes grounds to generalize, if not to moralize. Richards’s near-total abandoning of moral…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.