Memoir has emerged as a liberated species—breaking its own rules so repeatedly that there are now no rules except (for purists) to tell the truth and (for everyone else) to foil narcissism. The memoirist’s page is malleable. The memoirist’s frame endlessly shatters.
There are plenty of examples, but I like these: Joan Wickersham built The Suicide Index out of shifting perspectives, drawing on fiction, even, when she could not explain her father’s self-destruction. Maggie Nelson offered 240 numbered, jostled, jostling, perhaps not seamless blue-tinted paragraphs in Bluets. Darin Strauss delivered Half a Life with many half white pages. Mark Richard wrote his House of Prayer No. 2 in second person, save for an opening gambit in mostly third. Terry Tempest Williams, in When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, yielded, to the reader, many consecutive pages of white, white, white—in imitation of her own mother’s blank journals—before she went on to meditate about voice, but not in any programmatic order. Sarah Manguso stitched Ongoingness: The End of a Diary out of the piecemeal fabric of obsession. Heidi Julavits constructed The Folded Clock as a diary whose pages have been shuffled—a diary out of sequence. Jeannie Vanasco forged The Glass Eye out of “several color-coded binders labeled ‘Dad,’ ‘Mom,’ ‘Jeanne,’ and ‘Mental Illness.’”
And in Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, Beth Ann Fennelly compiled a scrapbook of small thoughts and big—a slender book of sometimes one-page flicks on topics like married love and children.
Life is iterative. Memoir is. No two stories can be the same true stories. And while it might seem today that all of this is obvious, that memoir must be plastic, it actually wasn’t nearly as obvious 18 years ago when Abigail Thomas—a writer known for her fiction, a woman known for her wit—published a collection of true stories called Safekeeping. It wasn’t a usual true-story book. It was declined, Thomas has said, by many a publishing house.
There was, to begin with, no “after that happened, then this.” There was no pronouncement of a thesis. There wasn’t even a profusion of I’s (there were far more shes), and though the whole thing seemed casual enough—no footnotes, no pretense, no unforsaken woe—the casual had been run through an intensifying rinse. These pages read like poems, but there were no line breaks. These lines kicked as if they’d been enjambed, but where were the enjambments?
Instead there was the hard knock of nouns. The slide of simple accountings. Sleight-of-hand suspense. A division into thirds, by which I mean sections titled “Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now.” Meditations on, well, married love and children. Thomas could make you think that she was just delivering the facts of her life—three kids before the age of 26, three marriages, grief, passing conversations with a sister—as they occurred to her, but no. She was arranging them.
The book’s first paragraph suspends time and keeps it suspended so that time becomes everything that might have been and the things that actually were, what never came to pass and what hasn’t happened yet. It’s a magic trick. There’s a white bird, winging:
Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola. I played Music from Big Pink over and over. “Tears of Rage.” “The Weight.” Wheels of Fire. I had three kids. We ate on the overturned kitchen drawer because I didn’t have a table. I was young. I didn’t know what things could happen. I spent my time in the moment; everything else was shoved ahead, like furniture I didn’t need yet. We were crammed into a small space. My bed was in the living room.
Safekeeping sidesteps the blunt force of a directed narrative. It’s happenstance, with a purpose. The reader has to pay attention. On a page titled “Tomorrow,” it has been, Thomas writes in first person, a year since her second husband died—the husband she loved best when they were no longer married but (somehow) friends. On the next page, titled “Witness to His Life,” this second husband is remembered as alive, a first-person remembering about a restaurant. Next we have “When He Told Her,” which recalls the time this second husband was, again, alive, but relating the news of his cancer. “When He Told Her” is a third-person remembrance. It would silence the author, we sense, if the chosen pronoun were an I. Its opening line: “She didn’t really believe it, not really, not in her heart of hearts.”
We don’t understand our earlier selves, or we fear them, or we miss them, or we idolize the choices they didn’t make. In Safekeeping, Thomas’s earlier self is often a third-person self, because it’s often a truer true story that way. And when the truth cannot even be guessed at, it is not guessed at. Safekeeping, then, is also a book of blank spaces, an emptiness between micro-fullness.
Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard and other autobiographical inclusionists notwithstanding, memoir making is all about the needle and the thread, the patchwork and the patches, the careful stitchery. Memoir making is as much about how we remember as what we remember, and there’s no better exemplar of that fact, now or then, to my way of thinking, than Thomas’s Safekeeping and the two subsequent, equally brilliant Thomas memoirs: A Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like It.
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that previous memoirists have not played, for example, with point of view. Bell hooks, for example, announces her methodology right up front in her memoir of childhood, Bone Black:
Laying out the groundwork of my early life like a crazy quilt, Bone Black brings together fragments to make a whole. Bits and pieces connect in a random and playfully irrational way. And there is always the persistence of repetition, for that is what the mind does—goes over and over the same things looking at them in different ways. The prevailing perspective is always that of the intuitive and critically thinking child mind. Sometimes memories are presented in third person, indirectly, just as all of us sometimes talk about things that way. We look back as if we are standing at a distance.
But Bone Black is a childhood story, with a more or less chronological through line. Safekeeping, with its drifting time and shifting moods and searing gentleness, is un-diagrammable, self-forgiving. Reading Safekeeping is like reading Carole Maso’s AVA, a morning, afternoon, and night novel that ticks out the last-day memories of a dying 39-year-old professor of comparative lit. AVA stacks impressions, one upon the other. The sequenced lines are tethered to nothing but lifting desire:
Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance. Birthdays. Independence days. Saints’ days. Even when we were poor. With verve.
Come sit in the morning garden for awhile.
Olives hang like earrings in late August.
It’s up to the reader of AVA to fill in the blanks. It’s up to Thomas’s readers, too. We are forced to be smarter than we are.
Safekeeping is scrapbook and seam. It is ephemera if words can be called ephemera. It is wisdom without the baggage of authority. “Like most power it was utterly real and utterly illusory,” Thomas writes toward the end, about her younger, beautiful self. “But she spent the next forty years with her eye on who was looking back. This didn’t get in her way. It was her way. Her ambition was to be desired. Now it’s over and what a relief. Finally she can get some work done.”
Abigail Thomas placed her unassuming trust in her own ideas about linearity and urgency, dodge and confession, frame and voice, and maybe she didn’t know at first what she was making, but she made it anyway. Her words were her needle. Her life was her thread. Some of her stitches looped and some of them frayed and sometimes there was a break in the pattern. Life’s like this, Thomas instructed. Life is everything. Life can be made and it can be unmade, too.
Go on, she said. You try it.
She unbuttoned a button. She unbuttoned another. We grew less and less encumbered.
Early in 2015, I was lucky enough to do an event with Joan Wickersham at a new indie bookstore in Boston, Papercuts JP. So her memoir The Suicide Index was one of the first books I read this year, and at year’s end, it’s still haunting me. It’s a painful book but also a beautiful one, in which Wickersham tries to make sense of her father’s unexpected suicide — but it’s also a meditation on loss, the secrets kept within a family, and continuing to live and find meaning even in the face of unimaginable grief.
2015 was also the year I caved in and read Elena Ferrante. Her novels had been recommended to me so many times — by so many people — I was sure they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But the first page of My Brilliant Friend sucked me in, just like everyone said it would. How is it possible that a novel about two girls living in mid-20th-century Naples can be so relevant to lives in the 21st century — especially the lives of women? I’ve never read novels like this and am so glad they exist. Don’t be put off by the list of characters at the beginning; just dive in and let the voice carry you. And when you hit that gut-punch of a last line, be prepared to run out and get the next book.
I don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Alyssa Harad’s memoir Coming to My Senses — it’s been out for a few years and is squarely in my wheelhouse, as I’m fascinated by scent — but once I did, this fall, I sank into it like a warm bubble bath. Harad tells the story of her growing obsession with perfume, in luscious language that will have you shivering with delight. I mean: “Bal à Versaille eau de parfum is famously rich and dirty: huge, overblown roses and rotting cherries smoked with incense and mellow, rotting manure. The eau de cologne is just plain dirty and is best worn by very wicked old women.” How can you not want to keep reading after that?
Finally, last year I read Heap House, the first book in Edward Carey’s middle-grade/YA Iremonger Trilogy; this year, the last two volumes (Foulsham and Lungdon) came out. The best description I have is if Edward Gorey and Joan Aiken collaborated on a novel, which I mean as high praise: it’s weird and wonderful and thought-provoking and just plain fun. Clod — not a typo, there — is a scion of the Iremonger family, who live in a garbage-filled wasteland called the Heaps, outside an alternate Victorian London. Every Iremonger is given an object at birth, from which they must never part — but Clod can hear something the others can’t: each object has a name, which it repeats over and over. Add a spunky housemaid heroine named Lucy Pennant, a mysterious disease that turns people into objects (and vice versa), and Carey’s own evocative black-and-white drawings, and if you aren’t intrigued enough to run out and treat yourself to this series, please check for your pulse.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.