Identity Crisis: What Is a Memoir Anyway? Print

Avery-Girl-Writing(Etude: New Voices in Literary Nonfiction Winter 2009)

A writer friend is telling me about an agent who phoned the other day. "She got right to the point," my friend says. "‘I’m sorry,’ the agent said, ‘but we won’t be representing your manuscript.’" ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s a memoir, and a memoir has to read like a novel.’ ‘It does?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ the agent said. ‘It does.’ ‘And who says so?’ ‘The market says so,’ she replied. ‘And yours, I’m sorry to say, is not there yet.’"

My friend shrugs; it’s early in the rejection game so she’s not sure how to react. In support, I tell her that agents often don’t know what they want. Their deferring to "the market" makes their rejecting you stomachable. It’s tough, I say, selling a book about yourself when your self is unknown. A celebrity has it easy. Her face is already a contract.

My friend aside, I’m left thinking about contemporary judgments that proclaim the memoir’s identity. Just because a novel is yoked to narrative, must a memoir follow suit? Is the agent’s declaration based on some earlier memoir that has now decreed all successors resemble it?

And which one would that be? Angela’s Ashes? The Glass Castle? Eat, Pray, Love? Are these books novel-like? They may house strong narratives, but their styles neither dominate the field nor choke out other entrants. When I think of the memoirs I’ve been reading, I find narrative just one of the writer’s several strategies. What’s more, I expect the memoir to be different from the purpose and pleasure of reading novels. The novel’s exuberances are the novel’s: a romance or saga, even a simple tale, in which characters surprise the storyteller by making their own choices, creating and giving in to events, speaking to ideas and values of a gender, culture, age. I don’t want a memoir to be a novel. I want it to be—no, I want it to reveal—a writer weaving memory and honesty and self into a fabric all its own.

Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life uses few novelistic devices. Instead, it’s a meditation on the loss of a beloved husband who is hospitalized for "good" after being struck by a car. Buoyed by the affection of three dogs, Thomas writes of the moments in which she is pinned to loneliness. Each passing afternoon is a pearl, baubled by light and dread. Nothing much happens except her learning to live with and bob along the bottomless grief that constantly animates her.

The Story of My Father, by the veteran novelist Sue Miller, is a sharply analytical book, with Miller sorting through her role as caregiver and daughter in the face of her father’s Alzheimer’s. She tells us that a memoir is harder to write than a novel because of how much the play of memory shapes her emotional truth. She asks, "Does life make narrative sense?" This is a question, she says, she doesn’t ask herself in her novels, for there the story she fashions makes narrative sense.

What of the eerie, highly internalized psychodramas of C. K. Williams’s Misgivings or of Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife? Here both authors confront parents who haunt them after their deaths. The writer becomes almost childlike in his inability (and need) to account for the parental shade. Such books ruminate on a son’s estrangement where all that is unexpressed and hoped for and grieved over is freshly felt. The adage that our relationships, especially in families, take place almost entirely in our minds rings true yet again. I’m reminded of Norman Maclean’s consummate line at the end of A River Runs Through It: "It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."

And what of Daniel Mendelsohn’s masterful The Elusive Embrace, with that intentional academic subtitle, "Desire and the Riddle of Identity"? Many paths are explored in this book: his homosexuality, his longing to raise a child, his inventory of classical Greek arguments for locking and unlocking the riddle, "Who am I?" This memoir is rarely dramatic; rather it’s stubbornly contemplative. Mendelsohn’s story is his search for a paradox he can write himself into—"Wherever I am is the wrong place for half of me"—which, eventually, yields him an identity he mostly trusts.

And then there’s the 1995 Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by a 34-year-old bi-racial Chicago organizer, Barack Obama. Obama’s probing psychological tale tells of how he achieved an awareness about his own possibilities and faults, especially with his lineage, while he lingers on how deeply such things have bothered him. Self-scrutiny surpasses dramatic event; self-scrutiny is the drama. Obama’s hewing to his doubt in the realms of community organizing and Chicago politics is among the most honest self-examinations I’ve ever read.

How did these non- or less-narrative memoirs get published? Obviously they did not remind an agent or an editor of the novel. I believe my friend’s now-former agent got it backwards: the pleasure of the memoir is that it not read like a novel. However, like all pleasures, there’s a problem: We don’t yet know what we mean when we say a memoir must read like a memoir. We know how it delights us when it veers from the persona and careens into self-disclosure. And we value those memoirists, who, layering the remembered self and the remembering self, invent the tack that will best serve the book’s thrust as they go.

With a new memoir, I’m drawn most to its unique aspiration. Will the book carry a lyrical or meditative voice? Will its tale-telling contend with an essayistic tilt? Will it be three-fifths a portrait of an eccentric father and two-fifths a deconstruction of that eccentricity? Will it flush with the detailed vigor of Toast, by the British foodie Nigel Slater. All things in Slater’s recollected adolescence hinge on food—its appearance (school-lunch tapioca is "ivory grey and looks like something an old man hocked up into his hanky"), its taste, its high and low rituals, its oral exotica weighed against his parents’ ale-drowned fish and chips.

The whole point of the memoir’s coming-into-the-country of literature is that it explores its own gambits on its way to an authentic and independent genrehood. The memoir’s mainstay is its felt intimacy, how a self plies an inner wound. The narrator must captivate us as she recalls and revises that narrator into being. What’s more, the "I" in the best memoirs occupies the ego, then undermines it. Brought up, brought down, the "I" is free to move toward realizations it hadn’t known, to the writer’s surprise and to ours.

Lacking imagination, my friend’s ex-agent must team the memoir with the winning tradition of the novel, whose three-century history, mighty oaks and roasted chestnuts, are everywhere known. And yet I also hear in her haughty remark the longing of one who actually wants the novel to have the wildness of form and resistance to category the memoir is enjoying. That is until the genre police start banging on the door and demand to see its narrative papers.