What is it about our present state of literary affairs that insists on blurring the line between fiction and memoir? It’s as if to have a narrative come from life lends fiction some undeniability or plausibility. Stranger than fiction? Or stranger than life? The moment we label the writing the questions begin.
One of the glories of writing fiction is that it allows you to inhabit characters, points of view, and states of mind that you might not in actual life. This might indicate that there is an unusual, even unenviable quality of this character’s life. In fact, this is how I look for a character to write about, having gotten into the habit of avoiding characters with uneventful lives. However, in the memoirs I’ve been riveted by–Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road To Everywhere Except Where You Came From–it usually matters less to me how extraordinary the life is.
These memoirs tend to construct a narrative from an incident in the life that might, on initial consideration, seem to offer a thin, even slightly dubious, premise. Often the writer’s story isn’t that remarkable; it is the skill of the writer that elevates the narrative into the art of memoir.
On the other hand, there are those memoirs that seem to blur the genre and offer a presumable fictional take on the writer’s story.
A slippery work in this vein is Philip Roth’s The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, which has Roth purporting to write his life in a straightforward manner. As he coyly states at the beginning of that book, “For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the fact, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract.” Roth manages to further cloud the issue by having one of his own characters, Nathan Zuckerman, as interlocutor, write a response to Roth in the last pages.
A recent success in this genre-challenged category is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume memoir, My Struggle. In the publisher’s audacious marketing, it has been called a novel, or collectively, novels.
Knausgaard offers a seemingly implausible attention to detail for events that happened to him decades ago. In some passages, he can spin out an incidental, mildly anecdotal scene over pages and pages. All of the qualities that should deny a reader’s interest seem to have been jettisoned. For the writer, the exhortations to use brevity and to explain only what matters, as well as the entire showing versus telling conundrum, has apparently been ignored. Knausgaard’s excess calls into question the notion of what is relevant. It’s not a remarkable life. But the author draws a reader into the realization that this is life. It’s often mundane. What surprises about My Struggle is that the hundreds of pages of this provincial boyhood life story can be so engaging.
This dynamic of the sliding definition of fiction and memoir is part of what makes My Struggle compelling, as if the only way Knausgaard could write his story was by cloaking it in the fog of fiction. This ploy didn’t work, as the runaway success of his novel worldwide has caused a scandal among his relatives for his apparently too close to fact based portrayals.
Memoir is always going to mediate between the actual incident–“the fact” as Roth has it–and what is written about that incident. But if the narrative is too outrageous, to full, it can set off our internal lie detectors, and we ask, could it have really happened this way? Though often, such subterfuge can be chalked up to subjectivity after the fact.
We might conclude that truth in the confines of a subjective personal memoir is always going to be bit misrepresentative. Fiction, then, can just as likely be based on an actual event. And why is it that memoir is more often passed off as fiction, and not vice versa?
When I wrote a piece about a college roommate, I could not publish it unless I changed his name. I wrestled mightily with that decision because It meant to me that I could no longer call it memoir. A large gap of time occurred between the events and when I wrote about them. Though this made it easier to explore, I had to question if I was actually retaining of the events accurately. Was it all still true? Behind this name change I might say that I wanted to protect him. However, truthfully, I didn’t want him to read it and know I had written about him, though the chances of this happening were extremely unlikely. Call it the risk inherent in writing memoir.
When I learned of a former neighbor dying recently, I tried to write about her. But I could not attach the significance of her life to enough particulars for me to feel that I was doing anything more than trying to grasp at the tragedy of her suicide for my own literary edification. I was trying to make sense of her death, trying to understand how I might have intervened to help. But the harsh reality is that I probably couldn’t have done anything for her. Ultimately, we were not much more than passing acquaintances. I didn’t know enough about her life–other than some intuited details–to lift the anecdote into anything of substance, into any truth. I would likely have to fictionalize her life in order to do that.
Bearing up some revealing truth about oneself that resonates with readers usually means I’m going to have to bear up some truth (or fact) about someone I know or care about. I would be most inclined to write about the people in my life: my two year old daughter. An eccentric roommate from my undergraduate years. The homeless fellow who tries to con me into paying for yard work I don’t want him to do. Yet I resist.
I don’t want to spin my memoir into an artificial literary screen about my life, as Roth does deftly in The Facts. Nor do I want to elevate anecdotes to a greater significance than they have. Yet anecdote certainly has its place in memoir–just consider Didion, who analyzes to a point of obsession the death of her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking. She often focuses on the banal details that characterized the event: “[C]onfronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames…” Such a notion of memoir intrigues my base writing impulses. Though I may not have such a memoir in my sights–perhaps I should be grateful. Ultimately, I want to create this kind of reality–an almost incidental quality–to confuse readers into thinking my novel is real.
In my current novel, I am writing a character that is writing about writing a memoir. My novel is inspired from a real event; it is not memoir. But as I wanted to use a set of circumstances and a character that is directly impacted by those circumstances, I need the legitimacy of memoir to convey the first person point of view. The memoir within a novel lends a layer of useful artifice that tweaks my plot. When looking for a device I considered the wily sleight of hand that enlivens Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock or Jim Harrison’s Wolf which is subtitled “A False Memoir.” At its heart Harrison’s novel is a memoir, jumbled enough to cast doubt, with the lead character sounding like a young Jim Harrison.
We say we admire a writer’s honesty, as if somehow we can really know that they are being honest. I like to think that they are. I admire those who can and do lift anecdote to the truth of memoir. I assume the memoir writer to be writing their heart’s truth. Call it that pact that a writer makes with a reader: we want to believe what the memoirist writes because it is often so unremarkable that it can’t be made up.
Robert Detman is the author of the novel Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas (Figureground Press, 2014). His short story collection was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Antioch Review, Akashic Books, Decomp, Juked, Newfound, and elsewhere. Find him online at robertmdetman.com
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