It is hard not to be impressed with Fran Lebowitz’s comedically acerbic dismissal of memoirs: when asked in the Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking whether she would ever pen one, she quickly replied that if your life were all that interesting, someone else would write a book about it.
Despite having some sympathy with this idea, or with caustic wit, or with avoiding writing, one can nonetheless assume that there are good reasons to embark on a memoir: the world and the self collide in a particular way that only you, or mostly you, can narrate; you would like a preemptive grab at controlling the discourse. For instance: Are you Winston Churchill? Are you Nixon in China? Are you Pat Nixon in China? Did you compose Nixon in China? (Its composer, John Adams, has in fact written an engaging memoir.) Are you connected to a fascinating and underexplored chapter in history in any manner whatever? Are you a professional storyteller with a beautiful prose style and some autobiography begging for reportage? Are you a trenchant thinker with incisive analytical powers? Do you have a social cause you would like to advocate strenuously? And if none of the above, are you Brigitte Bardot?
If not, wherefore the memoir? Are you helpless before your own life, and unsure of how to write the autobiographical novel that might exploit or explore or redream it into art? Do you have a case of what the literary critic Michael Wood has called “catastrophe envy”? Have you drunk the Reality Hunger Kool-Aid of David Shields’s current “anti-novel jihad” and joined him in chiding the limping dog of fiction as if it were an unfortunate habit of lying, an omnivorous pornography of the real, instead of the struggling but majestic thing that it is? Are you coming into the house of narrative through the back door because the back door is where the money is? Are you prone to what a recent article by Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times Book Review suggested might be the “oversharing” of inconsequential you? “Unremarkable lives” should go “unremarked upon, the way God intended,” Genzliger wrote, in what reads like a reversal of the final lines of Middlemarch—George Eliot on a perversely moody or perhaps drink-addled day.
That many young people are already writing their memoirs is no longer a funny thing to say but an actual cultural condition. Book buyers have nudged publishers in this direction: we love to read memoirs. Why shouldn’t we? At a dinner party is not the fiction, which consists predominantly and unfortunately of abbreviated film plots, protracted jokes, and urban myths, less mesmerizing than the real-life tales? It would be heartless not to be interested in memoirs. People are telling us their personal stories and speaking to us of their private lives and even if the structure is rickety and the prose has, to borrow Dick Cavett’s phrase, “all the sparkle of a second mortgage,” we are going to hang in there because it is true. That the facts and details of these jumbled confessions are occasionally fudged and embellished, however, seems inevitable, given the limits of memory and the demands of writing. (There are many things a storyteller must add and subtract to tell a good story.)
Dick Cavett, himself a first-rate memoirist, became the prompt for Lillian Hellman’s James Frey moment when in 1980 Mary McCarthy said on Cavett’s show that every word in Hellman’s memoirs was a lie. (A lengthy lawsuit ensued.) In 2006, James Frey had to account to Oprah for the fabrications in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, after which he began writing fiction, as if in penance. It is interesting for fiction writers who always alter and reimagine the facts of their lives to watch memoirists get in trouble for doing exactly that. That fiction prompted by the autobiographical is not the same as a memoir seems an idea that is either professionally or commercially inconvenient or just lamely and confusedly lost on many—though never on a novelist.
Nonetheless, excellent memoirs by novelists abound. Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory may be the paragon (or Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, or Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast), but there are powerful ones by contemporary fiction writers as varied as Philip Roth, Tobias Wolff, Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Edmund White, Elizabeth McCracken, and Joyce Carol Oates. Then there are people who despite doing other things have made the memoir their brilliant forte: Jill Ker Conway, Mary Karr, Ruth Reichl, to name a few.
This spring, memoirs of bereavement from two young poets who also happen to work in New York publishing have appeared. Festooned with blurbs, these prose works will find their readers and duly move them, for they are candid, questing, and tear-jerking if necessarily imperfect books. Jill Bialosky’s slightly mistitled History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life is a bumpy but stirring attempt to get to the bottom of the suicide at twenty-one of her younger half-sister, who after having been broken up with by a longtime beau, asphyxiated herself in the family garage, with her medicated mother sleeping well into the afternoon upstairs. Kim is discovered by someone else. The book is ostensibly a meditation and investigation—like most memoirists Bialosky eschews the word “catharsis,” since, as she has said when interviewed, “catharsis” implies a finishing that is nowhere to be found in these pages; it may also be one of the weakest excuses for storytelling. (Who wants to read someone else’s catharsis?)
Bialosky’s book includes much professional and literary handholding in looking slant let alone straight on at what will always seem an enigmatic event—the suicide of someone young and beloved. Terms are googled, experts are written and visited, Shakespeare is quoted, and the book she puts together, part common book, part souvenir album, part emotional laundry list, does not succeed in solving its own puzzles, although it assists the reader in coming away with his or her own ideas.
Kim’s suicide sits in the lives of Bialosky, her sisters, and her mother like a murder mystery, and the culprit the book increasingly gravitates toward is not the dozing mom or the dumping boyfriend (who, bizarrely, and with insufficient subsequent exploration by Bialosky—her invocation of Romeo and Juliet feels wide of the mark—committed suicide himself a few years later). Nor does she pay much attention to the blighted economic landscape, with its depressing culture of erotic and narcotic highs in lieu of meaningful work. As the book spirals about its various suspects, like the circling of a helix that is the movement of depression itself, the villain who increasingly emerges—or is fashioned—is Bialosky’s stepfather, Kim’s birth dad, who abandoned the family when Kim was very little and who once told her she would never amount to anything. Bialosky’s own Jewish father died young and left her mother a widow with three young kids; Mrs. Bialosky quickly remarried an Irish-American charmer and bounder. Characterizations here are not detached by Bialosky from ethnicity. With a checked-out mother upstairs and gray, struggling Cleveland outside, not every reader will wholeheartedly agree.
Bialosky wants to “recognize the forces that weakened Kim’s strength and attempt to re-create her inner world through my writing,” but this is exactly what it is impossible for the book to do since it instead illustrates Bialosky’s great distance from her younger sister. It is as if she has a refrigerator full of food, but through no fault of her own lacks the stove to cook it on. Bialosky has her own life in New York, full of a survivor’s guilty happinesses but also her own personal tragedies (she is pregnant when Kim dies and a subsequent loss of the baby takes up much of the book, as it naturally would in real life).
Kim’s turmoil cannot be explored and her inner landscape—despite diary and letter excerpts—remains uncreated. When Bialosky looks in her dead sister’s closet she lists, without explication, fourteen items of clothing, almost all of which are sexy and black. The exceptions include a Cleveland Browns jacket and the Laura Ashley rose-print dress Kim wore as a bridesmaid at the author’s wedding. That bridesmaid dress stops the reader: Is it harsh to ask what girl with a black leather miniskirt would want to wear this dress, would feel remotely seen or understood in it, and to wonder what bride would insist on it? Well, too many brides perhaps. One imagines Kim keeping it in order to sell it on eBay.
Elsewhere the bridal bouquet is also discovered among Kim’s belongings and we see the possible rebuke that flying token might have accidentally bestowed upon her, given all that her older sisters’ lives contained that excluded her: she surely felt loved by her siblings but discloses in her own writing feelings of inferiority. Although she was certainly young enough to turn her life around, contagious depression pulled her under—as did impulsiveness and drugs. Kim haunts the book like a sweet ghost—one that is perhaps begging to rest at last in a novel, where such inner lives can indeed be recreated or at least imagined with specificity: ironically, the genre of the novel, with its subtle characterizations and rich and continuous dreamscape, remains a kind of gold standard for a genre that may be usurping it.
Meghan O’Rourke’s book about her own personal bereavement following the death of her mother is titled The Long Goodbye, and she is not kidding. Hers is a tour de force et tristesse, especially in its first half, which has all the virtues of a theatrical narrative—emotional crises, paralysis before the oncoming locomotive of time, a family that is its own ensemble. (An ensemble that includes the smart, highly strung eldest daughter, two endearing brothers, the attractive teacher-mom and teacher-dad.) After its dramatic midpoint, and with no intermission, the narrative of The Long Goodbye drifts and casts about, just as O’Rourke herself did in the aftermath of her mother’s death as she struggles in the anguish of separation to find the proper and effective rituals of mourning and farewell.
A completely acceptable disorganization swirls about the writing, as if in imitation of O’Rourke’s restless state—her mother dies and is brought back to life several times; at one point it seems that one of the dogs dies twice. The pages proceed intuitively and in a zigzag through the decades. There is once more the googling of grief—literal and metaphorical—emotional processing of every stripe, the citing of Shakespeare (O’Rourke aptly prefers Hamlet though oddly never mentions anything uttered by grief-engulfed Ophelia), the revisiting of childhood memories that are now holier than they need to be, anger at others who are less comprehending (“The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved” is her epigraph from Iris Murdoch), and much setting out for long brisk runs to expel excess tension and get some fresh air.
Lecturing and historical exposition sometimes beset the book. (“The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer… argues that, at least in Britain, the First World War played a huge role in changing the way people mourned….”) Its stop-and-start quality can be summed up not just by the epigraph from Murdoch but also by O’Rourke’s quoting of La Rochefoucauld: “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.” Even the scattering of her mother’s ashes, for various reasons, is done in stages and takes over a year to be completed. “The body that I had loved lay in a sandwich bag.”
O’Rourke’s mother, Barbara, a beautiful (she is thought to resemble Ali McGraw) and companionable woman of “calm vibrancy” beloved by her entire family, is diagnosed with colorectal cancer when she is in her early fifties. (Her back story includes having been her husband’s high school student—she was married to him at seventeen—but the book chooses only to mention this in passing.) When Barbara gets the news of her cancer’s metastasis to her brain, it is from someone named Dr. Popper who before he leaves the examination room says, “Yeah. Two over on the left side…. Very unusual. So I’ll get Dr. Chi.”
And then it is the patient’s turn to speak.
“Well, THAT was awfully casual of him!” quips O’Rourke’s mother, who soon is in last-ditch experimental treatment with someone named Dr. Nougat. The doctors’ names alone cause dread to engulf the reader. Barbara dies at fifty-five—the halfway point of the book. Meghan O’Rourke has up until now proceeded with the vitality of a first-rate dramatist and her mother is a character well suited to it, equipped with an irrepressible spirit and a Christmas Day death, on a bed in the middle of the living room (so that death will be less “bureaucratic and fluorescent”), breaking the heart of everyone.
“I knew that a Christmas carol would make me cry this season,” O’Rourke says later, during the anniversary of her mother’s death.
I just didn’t know it would be “Frosty the Snowman,” that least dignified of all carols…. I was driving to Trader Joe’s on a rainy Sunday to buy poinsettias and eggnog…. As I distractedly pressed the radio buttons, I heard the familiar bumptious chorus, and my stomach turned with nostalgia: “Thumpety thump thump, thumpety thump thump, look at Frosty go.” But it was when Frosty, knowing of his imminent demise, tells the kids, “Let’s run, and we’ll have some fun now, before I melt away,” that tears leaked down my face.
This is the kind of thing O’Rourke does well—situating her grief amid the absurdities of everyday life. Moreover she seems to know her mother much better than Bialosky was able to know her sister and so her mother emerges less as a rough sketch and more as a completed portrait, a lively and memorable person, placed as if on a pedestal that is also on a stage:
Our mother was a fierce driver. A leased BMW was her one luxury…. The summer before she died, Jim came up to Connecticut with me for dinner; he’d just bought a used Audi. “Barbara,” he said, “I have to show you something.” My mother had just begun her final round of chemotherapy, but she disentangled the chemo purse from her chair and walked haltingly out to the driveway. When she saw the car, she cried out in glee, looked at Jim, and said, “We should race!”
If like Bialosky’s book O’Rourke’s fails to pose some of the larger impersonal and unphilosophical questions—O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention—it may seem a missed opportunity. Though epidemiology and public policy might disrupt the poetry of bereavement, a reader can long to see eloquent tears made useful. Memoirs often exist precisely for this reason—and their improvised form allows for accommodations of this kind without intruding on any narrative magic. Certainly Bialosky’s sister and O’Rourke’s mother remain engaging subjects deserving of the deep imagining, revealing design, and solid construction of heroines in good prose fiction, but real life is messy and sometimes gracelessly crowds out an enduring story, something no memoir reader necessarily expects. Advocacy of a certain kind can be a memoirst’s muse and companion and in any case is not a guest that will ruin the party. Even Nabokov’s canonical Speak, Memory does not give us the brilliantly vivid and coherent dreams of his novels—because it simply can’t.
A third memoir came my way while reading these other two. Entitled Dear Marcus, it would seem at first glance to be a fuller demonstration of the democratization of memoir that Neil Genzlinger so derides. Dear Marcus is a self-published first book by someone with no connection to New York publishing. At the age of twelve its author, Jerry McGill, was shot in the back in Manhattan’s East Village on New Year’s Day by someone he never saw. He has spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. (As with O’Rourke the anniversary of his tragedy is a holiday and unlike O’Rourke he gives himself a treat every year—a fancy meal at a restaurant, a trip to London.) His book is subtitled “Speaking to the Man Who Shot Me,” and since this man was never found McGill gives him a made-up name and then cries out to him about his life.
There is sorrow and fury, but this is not the Book of Job. McGill clearly possessed the charm, attractiveness, and spirit to avail himself of the help and care that came his way—both within therapeutic settings and outside—and he managed to have girlfriends, graduate from Fordham University, write screenplays, make films, and subsequently become a teacher and advocate for the rights of the disabled.
I, personally, feel like I am up for this challenge of being a person with a disability and I have had many a wonderful experience in this role, but it is hard, damned hard…. It is not for everyone. I have had tons of disabled friends over the years and the misconception that we are all strong, inspirational beacons of hope is an immense fallacy perpetrated by and subsisting on images in the media….
Nonetheless, although he can list the difficulties he has had with bathrooms, housing, and employment—“the powers that be in Hollywood don’t think there is a huge market for stories about people with disabilities despite all of the Oscar-winning portrayals that have come from actors playing disabled characters”—he also lists, to astonish his invisible assailant, the “marvelous globetrotting pleasures” he has experienced: from sipping coffee in a Costa Rican rain forest to performing at a vintage theater in England with a troupe of disabled performers. His book is short, sweet, homespun, and inspiring in the very way that he is skeptical of. He shares with Bialosky and O’Rourke a desire for alternative outcomes: all three books wonder in many directions, posing what-ifs, and their authors toughly poke their own wounds and search the sky. One never doubts the psychic injury, but objective criticism in the face of it is like quarreling with a fish. Yet of the three authors, McGill—the African-American man with the bullet lodged in his spine—is by far the most cheerful. As he writes himself, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
May 12, 2011