|Review: Memoir: An Introduction by C. Thomas Couser|
(American Book Review, 35.2, May 13, 2014)
A book that intelligently and capaciously introduces memoir for the general reader is, like a Chicago Cubs pennant or a movie reuniting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, long overdue. Such a flight I’ve been expecting, and I’m happy to say the bird has landed. So much about the memoir’s individuation in recent years, having gained traction as art and as therapy, C. Thomas Couser addresses. It seems there are few better qualified than he to take on the form. Since the late 1970s, Couser, American Studies professor at Hofstra University, has become a formidable authority on life-writing—with American Autobiography (1979) and Altered Egos (1989), about our national obsession for self-writing; Recovering Bodies (1997) and Signifying Bodies (2009), on the true stories of the ill and disabled; and Vulnerable Subjects (2003), about the ethical landmines authors face, writing about willing and recalcitrant intimates.
For Couser, two strains comprise memoir’s literary identity. First is historical: the personal narrative runs deep with Americans, in literary and so-called everyday writing. As a people we create ourselves anew by changing jobs, partners, homes, and callings constantly; like second acts, our stories, for more than three hundred years, reflect these journeys. Radically dissimilar styles separate the Indian captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1682) from the lost family grief of Joel Peckham (2012), but both are self-transformative. Finding commonalities, Couser, like a latter-day Linnaean taxonomist, exemplifies the many subject-matter varieties of autobiography and memoir. We read about such highly plumed and now ubiquitous species as autopathography (the illness and disability tale), shtick lit (the intentional memoir), scriptotherapy (the self-healing tome), matrio- and patriography (Mom and Dad, right and wrong), and, most popular, the “nobody” memoir, or how this inauspicious “I” grew. Of course, each of these has its bestseller and its thousand and one less-sellers.
The author’s second strain, coming in his best chapter, “Memoir’s Forms,” contrasts the memoir and the novel. Fiction, Couser writes, “has been more varied, inventive, and experimental in form than the literary memoir.”
Couser wants memoirists to avoid such exigencies of intent as well as downplay techniques the novel trades in. For example, it makes no sense that a memoirist use interior monologue (a novelistic device) because the memoirist (author, character, narrator) already has self-access. Likewise with indirect discourse and omniscience. No life-writer can get inside others’ heads, unless told; no life-writer can report what others say about him, unless told. These are necessary distinctions if we are to understand the memoir’s independence from, and challenge to, fiction.
The novel’s touchstone is, Couser notes, its verisimilitude, that superfluity of scenic narrative publishers want memoirists to dazzle us with—the daily vainglory of Cheryl Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail hike in Wild—so that a memoir reads like a novel: the redemptive tale of the “I” who falls and rises, often, by her wits alone. Reads like a novel also means sells like a novel. Just as orchestras fill seats (or used to) on the heroic repertoire of nineteenth-century symphonies, so, too, do nineteenth-century epic forms (and formulas) run up the bestseller lists. Memoirists, self-guided and agent-led, have found adoring audiences by adopting the story schemes our culture prescribes.
For the memoir writer, however, “the embrace of verisimilitude may be counterproductive. ”
Plausibility. An inartistic term that elicits Couser’s moral definition of the form, namely, its usefulness not as art but as truth. A truth based in life’s inaccuracies. A truth about memory-muddled experience which is not the verismo truth of the novel. Emotional truths. (James Agee, a closet memoirist who often regulated himself to the fictional ventriloquism of his age, once wrote of his contrarian literary ambitions: “I know I am making the choice most dangerous to the artist, in valuing life above art.” Thank goodness he did: we would not have Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) The memoir exists so its authors might escape fantasy and myth, types and social science. In criticizing the novelistic memoir, Couser calls for summary over scene. Summary gives moral agency—if not urgency—to the elliptical truth memoirists seek. Writing memoir is a way of thinking critically about experience, not a way of presenting experience as verity. Couser cites an idea Ben Yagoda develops in his Memoir: A History (2009): “When it comes to recalling everyday existence, memory does not privilege discrete events over typical ones.” Instead of scene, summary and reflection, Couser says, are “apparently truer to the way memory actually works, which is to distill (and distort), rather than simply record, our pasts.”
This, again, foregrounds memoir’s play with memory, which the Harvard psychologist and memory researcher, Daniel Schacter, once described as a “temporary constellation of neuronal activity.” How apt. The memoir engages now, the remembering, more than it engages then, the remembered. It is, Couser says, “actively constructive rather than passively mimetic.” Which is to say that a memoir privileges a failed, misfiring memory (common to us all) as the means to engaged renditions of life the story-bound narrators have trouble aspiring to.
In the fine chapter, “Memoir’s Ethics,” Couser contrasts memoiristic distortions: a distorted identity is not the same as a distorted event. A memoirist who struggles to establish an identity—racial, sexual, generational—is not the same as one who fakes an identity to capitalize on a trend; nor is a life-writer, who is probative of the thorny reconstruction of events, the same as one who forgoes those thorns and emphasizes drama. The idea is that unscrupulous publishers and lazy readers demand the illusory and the histrionic, and its C.S.I.-like payoffs (justice wins, secrets out), when real autobiographers walk the tightrope between memory and miscalculation.
In the end, Couser stipulates that a memoir’s value as self-disclosure is greater than the book’s merit as an aesthetic object. (Think of Ken Burns’ emphasis on the soldier’s letters home, in a way, mini-memoirs, in The Civil War.) Though standards of narrative craftsmanship may apply, they are not primal to the life-writer’s raison d’être.
I’m reminded of the love letters my father wrote to my mother during his three-and-a-half years at sea during the Second World War. They have, he once told me, though I never read them, scant literary value; a few passages of the ocean at night might pass for poetry. But as witnessed truth, mixing his terror of being bombed and his longing for his new bride, my mother, the letters comprise his lost youth, his unwanted war. In a fit of rage, some twenty years after he had written them, my father burned every one of those letters. Apparently he wished neither his wife to recall nor my brothers and I to know the self he disclosed to her from 1942-1945. His denying us his words—and thus a gaze into his disturbed heart—forces me to write things I would rather not know are true.