|On the Best American Essays 1995: Man Versus Boy|
|Essays and Memoirs|
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(Essay Daily December 16, 2015)
The surprise? That I single out the male authors. That I count twenty authors total, thirteen men. That my distaste is palpable. Find them sexist, show-off-y, self-infatuated. Was unprepared for such a response. In me. What the passage of twenty years since I first read these pieces can do. It’s the self-righteousness that’s so bothersome. The wooliness of having put it behind me or I have no doubts so no reflection turns the bearing as though the past were father to the man. How glossily several calibrate their inner Brett Easton Ellis in whom the boy demands—be he PFC, rookie, deckhand, red-shirt—to ring the remembrance.
What I mean is. John Turturro in Barton Fink. Michael Keaton in Birdman. The boy in the man who is ever what he was. Who LP’s Sticky Fingers or Blonde on Blonde with unclogged reverence. Boys in men other men admire. Who reel highlights, who wash-and-wield a Buick 6, who used to be, if not are, some woman’s used-to-be. Those literary varietals—the stooge incarnate or the male ingénue. Whose sense of self comes at the boy’s behest.
Such is the evidence of several macho-laced essays from 1995—and, lest we forget, twas an aggressively transformative year: daily email began, the dotcoms roared, and word processors generated our texts. One of the blowhard writers is Edward Hoagland. In his “Strange Perfume,” we get an over-shared, over-analytic defense of his lifelong infidelity with wives and tricks and student girlfriends (Are you so hard up, Mr. H., that you have to date your students?), a sort of brag-fact about the women he chose (who all look alike: willowy, irresistible), a boorish tell-some: “Men have a sack of seeks to sow, and such a theory does not contradict the adolescent aspects of cheating on our wives, because nature did not construct men with the expectation that they were going to live very long.” Think on that they: men, women, or both? I don’t believe it’s ironical, either: I know a sixty-five-year-old, who, after he read about new research into male sexual/predator behavior (by no means an accepted staple of human evolutionary psychology, just another theory), said to me, “How else do you explain attractive women? They made themselves attractive so we’d be more likely to fuck them!” How, as Simone de Beauvoir said, men mystify women with allure to turn them into lesser others.
Like Hoagland is the glacially self-absorbed Joel Agee, castoff son of the great immersion journalist James (all praise that famous man). In “Eros at Sea,” a paean to his shipping-out days, he’s trying to forget the fifteen-year-old girl who he claims seduced his obsession for her, and their bedded bliss, a summons to write this pouty tale of mock-torment. Because the essay is boarded by a con man to whom Agee gives everything off his back, plus his earnings: only after which, severely chastened, can he toss the girl’s memory out to sea. It’s an essay in which the author promises to wake up to his self-prison—and never does. Rather, he stays in the comfort zone of his literary manliness: the suffering boy, man-enameled, is worth hem-hawing over, as is the slippered foot of Eros. Hemingwayesque, we call such dumb-downed feelings on which we pedestal immaturity, the mind-binding rite of romantic love.
Another prig, the last of a breed, is William H. Gass whose “The Art of Self,” an essay I read first in Harper’s in 1995 and loathed it then and which fire-fueled the backlash against the memoir genre (the form’s growing pains authors have dealt with in their work despite his pique). But, at the time, Gass’s formalist esthetic was territorially unchallenged, incontestable. Read now, the gas of self-loathing escapes from this misanthropic balloon, here and there, fascistic. Writing of industrialization, he says, “machines began to replicate objects, and little people began to multiply faster than wars or famines could reduce their numbers.” “Little people” are, of course, nonliterary. Most of his dyspepsia harangues type: he doesn’t name a single author of autobiography (later, the memoir) he so reviles. He just hates the lot of them. Why? Well, judge for yourself.
Many lives are so empty of interest that their subject must first perform some feat like sailing alone around the world or climbing a hazardous peak in order to elevate himself above mere existence, and then, having created a life, to write about it.
He calls autobiography/memoir a “freak of nature,” a “corruption of form,” a book that is “now [1995?] celebrated” for its “most commonplace and cliché-ridden awareness,” “irrelevant” and “pious.” Compared to what? The factual truth of history? The Confessions of Augustine? Since all writing must be judged against certified masterpieces like Thucydides and Shakespeare, why bother to write anything, spectacular or ordinary, since it’ll never undress Henry James. Such are his mulish assumptions. His claims are nonsensical: that all autobiographers dump in everything and cannot separate data from core (as if, twenty years ago, hundreds of such published iniquities lined the shelves of Borders), that no one but the historically significant should write such work (another male bias, which reserves the form only for those who do), and that no one can practice the kind of selective reduction a good memoir should have (of which Gass cites Lewis Thomas, not a memoirist, but an essayist, as his lone example). As I say, these points have been contravened by the memoir form itself, via nonfiction narrative and criticism, rendering, in retrospect, Gass’s personal tantrum childish.
What’s further bedeviling about Gass’s arrogance is that a) virtually no one supports his literary extremism and b) he couldn’t even imagine the memoirist’s esthetic. He doesn’t understand the primal urge to memoir—that authors make books in which their unknowing, their tentativeness and trials with “telling the truth,” becomes the narrative drama. Had Gass just read Virginia Woolf or Frank Conroy or Vivian Gornick, he might have recognized the opposing viewpoint. But that would mean he would have felt such nonfictional narrative drama as necessary. He didn’t. He pontificated a perch for literature whose authoritarianism no one—who reads well or poorly—trusts anymore.
In the end, it’s his peevishness about form and his masculine disgust with consensus—the memoir was, twenty years ago, a new literary genre, a readymade for the passionate postmodern author, burningly clear to me and millions of others even then—that galls. Fear of literature’s evolutionary maladaptation to millennial changes in technology and the death of the humanities blackened Gass’s cognition, despite/because of his erudition. He’s hyper-allegiant to classic literary forms. It’s a claim that we writers, so severely clubbed by our forebears, in Gass’s view, should know better than to bypass Chaucer’s humor, to forgo Ezra Pound’s dictum that only the French troubadours are worth studying, to think our religious lives must begin and end with the Bible. Such edifices will crumble—if we let them.
Onto an alternative male persona in several essays, men who unmale themselves. Tobias Wolff, in “Civilian,” for instance, who remembers getting back from Vietnam, in a stateside bar with a date when he runs into Dicky, a drunk grunt whom Wolff, a first lieutenant, supervised in country and can’t avoid postwar. The talk falls into war brag, which, as Wolff tells it, he regrets at once, changing his tone as he goes, conscious of his bullshitting: “As soon as you open your mouth,” he writes, “you have problems, problems of recollection, problems of tone, ethical problems.” What’s compelling, though, is that the war story elicits “in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it?”
Where does that desire to unpack one’s swagger, such self-assessment, come from? Hard to say other than the individual. Which makes me wonder whether all combat vets don’t feel maniacal guilt, especially those who boast of how they Audie Murphy-ed their way out of danger when they know that the real heroes of that pitched battle, who took the fire and freed them, are dead. Hasn’t this been one of the war author’s recondite strategies all along—from Leo Tolstoy to Anthony Swofford—all too often buried under our civilian choruses of “thanks for your service” or those star-vehicle movies celebrating sniper death over suicidal despair?
And then there’s “Father Stories,” an elegant meditation on a son’s criminality and a father’s guilt: John Edgar Wideman’s essay taken from his memoir, Fatheralong. What takes Wideman time to get right, understandably, is the weightiness of the moment he realizes that his grown son has been accused of a murder. His fear that it’s true is pasted together from stories of his son’s growing-up: one, at summer camp, when the boy was six and keys from the motorized vehicles went missing and were never found. The boy was the never-named prime suspect. Then, other memories: as a child, his son terrified of leaves falling on him from a tree branch and the father’s consoling him; the father’s own fright, when young, of birds, their beastial feathers, vultures he saw in a movie, and his own panicky burial of the fear in himself.
When Wideman hears of his son’s probable guilt in the murder, he addresses him directly, telling him that when he heard the news of the killing and his son’s running away eight years earlier, he collapsed in abject anguish, prayed he’d die of the pain, and, eventually, accepted that time, “like a long string studded and barbed,” would endlessly drag them through the wound. “The years are countless moments, many as intense as this one I’m describing to you, moments I conceal from myself as I’ve hidden them from other people.”
The mature voice, confessing to his son, confessing to us—the principle that for despair to be in the writing, it must be in the writer while he essays. Wideman does not so much recall the past and its inescapable grief, recollected in solitude, but he laments its ongoing occupation in a purgative present. This is the time of a man’s having lost his son to an ever-enlarging universe, in which the son’s guilt, the father’s premonitions, the murdered man’s life, the son’s trial and sentence, the paternal limp all meld in “the wrap of oblivion embedding them.” The father can say all this about and to his son until he feels love and hope equal loathing and oblivion. Such is the rawness of a man’s self-disclosure, an essay so intense that when (some) men read it, they figure they just as well keep their own wounds hidden. And, if they do write about their lives and opinions, they go no deeper than Hoagland, Agee, or Gass.
Twenty years on, and I’m still rereading Harold Brodkey’s memoir-ode, This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death, from which BAE 1995 collected a portion, “Dying: An Update.” For me, (an illness writer with acute, not chronic, heart disease), Brodkey’s takedown of his hubris structures the finest trauma tale I know. In it, we hear of his travail with AIDS, his hospital stint, his wife’s caretaking, the daily horrors of his suffocated breathing, of how “my life ended . . . and my dying began.” The humor is deft: to his generously hopeful, pragmatic doctor, Brodkey, already weary of fighting the good fight, barks, “Look, it’s only death. It’s not like losing your hair or all your money. I don’t have to live with this.”
Hyperaware of his motives, Brodkey counts himself among the marketers of American optimism. Our idea of freedom is future-focused—the testing/the pills/the palliative care are deferred compensation. We will be better, healthier, and happier. If we stop complaining. If we follow the doctor’s advice. If we smile more (what can it hurt?). Brodkey avers that even memoir, whose form he is as suspicious of as he is faithful to, is part of the medical hopefulness our culture espouses. To write ourselves to health, Brodkey understands, is another role we adopt—especially as we’re dying. Make your dying memorable!
Brodkey’s genius is to deconstruct the dyer’s strongman persona in himself. While he’s buying this myth, he’s also casting his grumpiness everywhere and analyzing it as he goes. In one part, he kvetches like an old prune: “This goddamn hospital bed is so uncomfortable you might as well kill me and get it over with.” Or he admits he’s a pain-in-the-ass to Ellen, his wife, whose embrace grows tighter the more conflicted he becomes, saying that she wants to have AIDS, too, so she can die with him. Which he calls “a bit of a marital lie,” and then lets her have it: “That’s bullshit, honey. It isn’t what I want. Just can it, O.K.?”
For Brodkey, the maladies are twinned: there is the disease, through which he wades and wets himself—“Everything was suffocation and the sentence of death, the termitelike democracy and chemical gusts of malaise and heat, of twisting fever, and the lazy but busy simmering of the disease in me”—and there is the fashionable context of that disease, its odd social allure. Having AIDS says so much, in addition to its blight, about his elevated position in the bell jar of literary New York: his bi-sexuality, his putative reputation as “The Fuck You Dreamed Of,” his mastery of the mordant “New Yorker” short story. “What a joke,” he says, unconvincingly. “I was never in the Casanova range and league of Norman Mailer.” Still, he wants to make peace with the author in the mirror. Who will and who won’t be cowed.
In the end and home from the hospital, he has no heroic self left to purge: AIDS ate it. No, there’s something keener to unveil—he is not the atoning invalid he thinks he is or his culture wishes he would exemplify: “We called no one. We were still telling the family and anyone else who telephoned that I had pneumonia, nothing more.” So much for negotiating his literary reputation. “In a rather transparent isolation, my arrogant deathliness and her [his wife’s] burning gentleness were dancing together in a New York light in our apartment. It was like childhood, a form of playing house.” And then this admission: “The truths in such domestic and emotional enclosures tend to go unrecorded.” Brodkey’s irony is never menacing. His burden is light.
The degree to which the man is writing about the boy still in the man and the man dethroning the boy’s reign—the male complex, its shadow intact, which this edition’s editor, Jamaica Kincaid, may or may not have realized she had foregrounded in her choices (thanks, for this essay, all the same)—has drawn my scorn and my praise. Was it obvious to me in 1995? Were the genders of the writers—and their unconscious (what do we call it now) genderizing—unavailable to my readerly capacity then? What happened to me that I see it now?
The male confession was just beginning to substantiate. Wolff, Wideman, and Brodkey were the 1990s’ cutting edge. The reason I may not have recognized male disclosure as liberation then (and the opposite, a codpiece exhibitionism) is I didn’t have the experience of my being the experience of my writing. It took twenty years of authoring to see my gender’s potential for intimacy—and its lack—whether in my essays or those of others. How transparent it is to me now. How utterly seen-through.