“Please look. Can you see us?”
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Of all the literary genres to have ascended into popularity on this planet, few have roped in our resident Zeitgeist as capably as the memoir. Its mission — to relate a personal narrative in an illuminating, often embellished manner — coincides with the modern need to bring artistic, or at least sexy, vision to our lives.
The memoir has risen to such heights that it’s drawn parody: The Arsonist’s Guide To New England Writers’ Homes employed the same technique in dealing with the genre that the protagonist, Sam Pulsifer, uses with, well, New England writers’ homes. Memoirs, to Sam, are “like the Soviet Union of literature, having mostly gobbled up the smaller, obsolete states of fiction and poetry.” He goes on to wonder “Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves?”
A genre perfectly suited for a generation full of individuals perfectly obsessed with their image, the memoir certainly is. If the 70’s brought us the Me Generation, in the words of Thom Wolfe, we’re the Stage Generation. Wolfe’s contemporaries busied themselves with self-exploration, a more inward-moving sort of journey that mined the landscape of newly available intellectual thought and soul-searching practices (Western, Eastern, historical). Ours, however, is a style more suited for an audience — that mediated existence, the sense of being watched by a judging eye. We don’t stop at finding meaning for ourselves — if that is even a goal at all. We need to craft an image, a brand for ourselves. Thus, we perform. Thus, the memoir.
But that’s the thing: all stories are performances, in that they’re supposed to engage the audience. Any piece of artistic work, whether performed or written or smeared across a canvas, involves a great degree of decision. That’s a crucial point, though it seems obvious. We need to remember that pieces of art don’t just arise out of nowhere — bars of music and strings of words don’t weigh an ounce. So, when they emanate from our minds, they’re necessarily chosen over other words and other notes, which means that they’re the result of human striving and work, not passed down by some great, objective word-depot. Think of it this way: how many ways could you describe the Red Sox’ riots in 2004, and how different would the implications be for each description?
Every word is an actor in a production. And we judge a production not on how closely it follows the script, but on the final, holistic result. And that’s why all these memoirs — James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Margaret B. Jones’ Love And Consequences — that have been debunked recently really aren’t that bad, and that the mass of people who are enraged by them don’t have the right to be.
In A Million Little Pieces, Frey writes about the horrors of recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. The book, released in 2003, opens up with him waking from a stupor on a plane home, where his parents meet him and check him into rehab. The controversy, which bubbled up in 2006, stemmed from what seems now to be light, almost passing investigation that turned up information proving moments in Frey’s book to be impossible.
In Jones’ tale, she writes of a life uncommonly sordid. A few problems. Her name isn’t Margaret B. Jones. It’s Margaret Seltzer. That’s commonplace enough — authors everywhere use pseudonyms for a variety of reasons both professional and personal. But the disconnect between Margaret B. Jones and Margaret Seltzer is not so common. Jones, a half-Native American foster child, grew up in squalor, the other side of the American coin, where she was a drug runner who was given a shiny new pistol for her 13th birthday and faced where she faced the common teenage dilemmas of choosing between the Bloods and Crips. Seltzer, on the other hand, grew up in a privileged household with her biological parents, attending private school in North Hollywood.
We need to make two core concessions: (1) Lying between people who truly rely on each other (inasmuch as we can pin down a real truth) cannot be the norm for human relationship-building to go on. In other words, friends can’t lie to friends. Without trust, we’re always leery, and have no foundation upon which to build. Of the three things I consider most important in life — love, trust and creating/telling awesome stories — the first two take precedence. (2) Journalism, in its ideal form, is also important, in that it employs the help of as many sources (perspectives) as possible to formulate truth. Memoirs are not journalism.
So, now that we’re past the table-setting, time to dig in.
I brought up this subject of memoir-debunking over plates of pretentious Thai afternoon food the other day, and a buddy brought up the example of sports: Do I care that pro wrestling is fake? Of course not, I said.
Fine, he said. Then would you care if sports were faked?
Of course I would.
A-ha, he said. See?
No no no.
If sports are to be faked, they would have to be faked on the immediate, initial level. They would have be false as they’re actually occuring (fixed games like the Black Sox, etc). But that wouldn’t mean that the actions themselves weren’t occuring. These memoirs recounted things that simply did not happen — thus, they couldn’t have ‘faked’ what happened, because nothing ever happened. The reality of a story is no more than the story’s components. The story refers back to events that preceded it, attempting to retell it, but the only thing we know about the story is that it exists: the only thing real about a story is that it’s a series of words that our consciousness binds together into a coherent thought. Just like the reality of a baseball game is the ball, the bats, the 4-6-3 double play, the reality of a story is the pen or the voice and the turns of phrase.
And I really do believe that. Words are funny things, in that they have no intrinsic value. They’re good only insofar as they have the same connotations for the teller as they do for the listener/reader. If someone says ‘chair,’ it’s important that an image of a contraption upon which someone sits arises. Ultimately, the aim of point is to illustrate that words shape our reality based on subjectivity.
Stories have the capacity for so many things, from the illuminating to the enlightening to the engaging to the downright maddening. But on a very basic level, they’re supposed to entertain. And these faux-memoirs, these grand hoaxes, certainly did that.
And in this era of everyday, self-referential postmodernism in almost all of our art forms (from Ocean’s Thirteen using Julia Roberts to play a character in the movie that looks like Julia Roberts, Arrested Development making references to HBO and Showtime when Fox canceled it, Chuck Norris used in advertising), these grand hoaxes added another layer of entertainment to the stories.
Most stories (most of the classics notwithstanding, but some included) only possess the acute, one-time charge of excitement that comes when you first read it. Not that reading books again is a bad idea, but, for example, Catch-22 loses something every time you re-read it, because you already know what’s gonna happen to Orr and what Snowden’s secret is. But these memoirs have become meta-memoirs. Suddenly, there’s a story behind them, a greater depth that was entirely unexpected. It’s probably the coolest behind-the-scenes look you can have, an examination of the psyche of somebody who’s talented enough to write a compelling tale and pass it off as what actually happened. To me, that seems pretty damn interesting.
A lot of the complaints stem from anger at the misrepresentation of people in the situations that the books depict: people in ghettos and drug users. Well, nobody seems to think that Seltzer’s story was too unbelievable. Yes, this white girl didn’t do the first-person research, but she did write a story that kept the attention on the plight of America’s domestic warzones, which really do need the attention. Dickens’ work, even though it was called fiction, served much the same purpose.
Make no mistake: these memoirs weren’t journalism, even if Frey’s story was supposed to illustrate the pains of drug withdrawal (which he did experience, if not to the extent that he wrote). They weren’t packaged as journalism (although journalists should be the ones called upon to talk about the mountainous odds stacked against our urban poor). Journalism, as postulated earlier, requires utilizing a number of sources to zero in on truth. In journalism, a one-source story isn’t a story: it’s a podium. One source for a story allows for every bit of bias and self-aggrandizement to come through unchecked. If you’re going to have a story with one source, you might as well just file it under fiction: remember, one perspective only gives one angle on a story, one that tends to serve the interests of the teller.
Memoirs, in that they’re just stories told from a single perspective, are then almost always told with that dramatic flair. A memoir (well, really, any story), is the difference between a series of moments and a personality. A star athlete is only a star athlete because a number of occurrences have made him successful; in other words, he is not objectively a star athlete, but only a star insofar as he continues to have success. If suddenly he fails, he is no longer a story. Quantitative changes become qualitative changes. See a story as a line of best fit — grouping together points with our own need to categorize things and make them jive with our need for a logical narrative.
Let’s say the following five things happen over the span of a few years, starting in, say, high school: 1 – You develop crush on a girl, but are too shy to say anything. 2 – The girl breaks up with her boyfriend. 3 – You hit a home run. 4 – You ask a girl on a date. 5 – You eventually marry the girl.
The resultant story could be that you gained so much confidence from the home run that you asked her out and that was that — all harkens back to the homer. But what else happened between the five points? Maybe she’s got other issues. Maybe she was getting revenge on the ex. Hell, maybe one of her friends paid her to go out with you. Hemingway said that a story isn’t everything that happened, it’s everything important that happened. It’s what we choose to include and omit that makes a story a story.
So, when does a memoir cease to be a memoir? Does a single lie in the story, whether significant or relatively inconsequential, render it fiction? How about embellishment or even an omission? Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work is still filed under memoirs, even though a chunk of it is imagined. Is it a matter of just percentage of truth versus fiction, or something more?
The most salient point I want to make is this final one: when we feel abused at these writers’ faking it, we rupture the reader-writer relationship. We’ve already conceded that lying to each other all the time would render relationship-building almost impossible. To get close, we need at least the basic assumption that the person to whom we are growing closer is frank with us. But these writers aren’t our friends. They’re not babysitting kids. They’re not borrowing our cars or subletting our apartments. They’re hundreds or thousands of miles or even several continents away, hidden behind layers of paper and font and a long, long editorial process. We’ve clearly never met them. So why the connection?
People bought these books hoping to be told an engaging story that will allow them to depart their daily lives for a time (that’s not a knock — it’s really one of the essential parts of reading). To me, this dynamic resembles something like Gandalf coming to the shires and telling tales of his faraway adventures. It doesn’t matter if they’re not true — what matters is that they’re entertaining, that they bring joy and they allow people (or hobbits) to open up their minds. But Gandalf never had to deal with the American media.
Using that Gandalf image, there is something of a captain-of-the-boat phenomenon that exists for a good storyteller. As the tale goes on, everyone’s attached to the charisma, the poise and the glow surrounding the character. Attention is a hot commodity, especially in American culture, and if you can hold it, you’re given almost limitless power, like it or not.
In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella (Costner) knocks on Terence Mann’s (James Earl Jones’) door, and pitches him on coming to the Sox-A’s game at Fenway (pre-Monster seats) that night. The voice had told Kinsella to be there, but the relationship started years before.
By the time I started playing, baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage, Kinsella says. So when I was 15 I started to refuse. Can you believe that? American boy refusing to have a catch with his father?
Why? Mann says.
That’s when I read The Boat Rocker, by Terence Mann.
–I never played catch with him again.
That’s the kind of crap people always try to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with him.
There’s the problem with a good story. It gets inside of you, bonds with your bones and, in every honest version of the term, changes your life.
As such, these faux-memoirs call into question the relationship between the reader and the writer. We’ve already established that a story is, at the most generous, one broad-based perspective on something that happened but is no more. The storyteller does just that: tells the story. Without someone to listen — and, more important, believe — the relationship fails. Just like it’s the student’s prerogative to learn (which, when declined, renders teachers helpless), it’s the reader’s prerogative to believe. And thus, when things go wrong, the reader has to share the responsbility. Kind of like picking up a hitchiker.
However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t believe anything. We should just choose to believe things that are more worthy — we need to develop our skills of open-minded skepticism. Life would suck if we were just pure cynics. Don’t accept everything blindly, but on the same token, don’t just assume it’s all false, either. Hone the skills of filtration, but be prepared to be fooled on occasion. The nice thing is, the better we get at sifting out the crap, the more impressive the hoax will have to be to fool us. And, at that point, we can just tip our caps to a damn good show.
We need to call into question these faceless tomes. There’s a reason why the rhetoric, the strident chicanery of the Bush administration has not been roundly rejected. People want to believe, and they want to believe stories. But, as readers and as citizens, we need always to maintain vigilance against over-faith. Believe at your own risk.