The Antioch Review, Vol. 64, No. 4 & Creative Nonfiction, No. 29

Both of these special issues look at creative nonfiction/memoir, in the wake of the Jonathan Frey shipwreck. The Antioch Review's issue is subtitled Memoirs True and False. Editor Robert S. Fogarty in his introductory essay reminds us that this is not a new controversy, citing the reaction to Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento. He goes on to describe a number of memoirs, demonstrating their range and diversity. The essays that make up the bulk of the volume are also diverse, some giving an extraordinarily vivid view of an experience, others musing on the role of memory and memoirs. Creative Nonfiction's editor, Lee Gutkind, on the other hand, devotes the issue to explaining what the genre is and exploring some of the ethical issues faced by CNF writers.

One of these is how to handle dialogue. I know there are many readers who will not tolerate any dialogue whatsoever in a memoir, since it cannot be word-for-word accurate unless—like my son’s friend Lorne—the writer carried around a journal and transcribed every conversation as it happened. Other readers accept dialogue because it brings the scene to life and conveys an emotional truth.

Count me in the emotional truth camp. Picking up a memoir is, for me, like sitting down in a theatre. I know that the living room on the stage with its coral-striped rugs is not a real living room, and the deck with shells on the railing is not a real deck, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in order to enter into the story. If I want the facts about an event, I’ll go to the newspapers and history books, accepting even there the inevitable distortions. I go to a memoir for one person’s understanding of what happened. Obviously that person’s understanding is going to be skewed by the things s/he has selected to remember and the way those memories have been twisted by time, photographs, other people’s stories, etc.

There is substantial literary artifice involved in writing a memoir, even without the use of dialogue, if only in the selecting and ordering of events to create a narrative out of the chaos of a life lived. No writer—even a journalist—gives you every detail of a person’s appearance or every word that comes out of that person’s mouth. The writer selects details and quotes that support the narrative.

The further literary artifice of dialogue in a memoir doesn’t bother me. I trust that the writer is giving me the emotional truth of a conversation as the writer understands it. I trust that the writer is making a good faith effort to present not just dialogue but the events of the narrative as accurately as possible given the constraints of time and memory. Of course, sometimes that trust is betrayed. I personally draw the line at deliberate distortions such as creating composite characters and rearranging the chronology of events.

In a memoir, I don’t expect proclamations of truth handed down by an omniscient being. I expect to enter into the experience of another flawed human being, and welcome literary devices like dialogue that enhance that experience.

Don’t Look Back, by Karin Fossum

I read a lot of mysteries. This one is set in Norway, where Inspector Konrad Sejer investigates a disappearance and a death in a small remote village. As he begins to disentangle the lives and interactions of the people who live there, at the foot of Kollen mountain, at the end of a fjord, he discovers the secrets that connect and divide them. I always enjoy this part of a mystery: looking behind people’s public façades to discover the burdens they carry, a relationship perhaps, or the weight of the past.

I’m not sure what it was about the story that made me always aware that I was in Norway, partly the descriptions of the setting of course, but also something in the civility of the characters, the way they talked to each other. The story—the all-too-human motivations of the characters—could have happened anywhere, but there was some reticence these characters possessed that made me like them a lot.

Fossum compares the village to a “pool that is much too still”. I wonder about isolation sometimes, how being cut off can let your weirdness grow unchecked until—as my sister says—you veer off into the crazy lane. Many of these characters are isolated in one way or another, not just by location, but by divorce, disability or past trauma. Much as I love Dilbert and other mocking representations of office life, I recognise that bumping up against other people day after day helps to control some of my wilder tendencies. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to forget the rules pretty quickly. After a few days off in the woods, I forget to comb my hair, sometimes even to zip up my pants. Coming back to civilization is always an adjustment.

Robert Bly talks about the growing isolation in our culture (among other concerns) in The Sibling Society, condemning computers and television not just for making us passive but for keeping us from interacting with others. This point is only a minor part of the book, which about the immense cultural change he sees in the last few decades. His thesis is that by dismantling the hierarchy of the punitive patriarchal society that had been in place for hundreds of years, we have created a horizontal society (siblings rather than parents and children). Having grown up in a family of many siblings battling to mark out their territory and defend it, I could see his point. But I sure hope there’s a way to create a better society than the one Bly describes without going back to the old hierarchies.

I believe in the value of community, whether it’s based on a neighborhood, a church, a dance group, the ice rink, an alumni association, whatever. I believe, too, that there are ways to strengthen our communities, not just by showing up to be together, but by designing our spaces appropriately (as Jane Jacobs wrote about so well) and by treating each other with civility. I find it easier to be civil when I can remember that everyone has secrets and burdens.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hearing on The Writer’s Almanac that his birthday was this week reminded me of Ishiguro and his latest book which I read a few months ago. Ishiguro is always taking on new challenges. I’ve been a fan for a long time, enjoying the deeply felt precision of An Artist of the Floating World and A Pale View of Hills and the startling rightness of The Remains of the Day. I struggled with The Unconsoled because the narrative seemed to follow the logic of dreams where you might walk through a door to a cafe in Munich and find yourself in a mall in Tokyo or a boardroom in L.A. I finally gave up trying to puzzle out the dream logic and just let the scenes wash over me: certainly a different way for me to experience a novel.

With Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro returns to linear narrative (yes, I know there’s another book in the middle that I haven’t read yet—gotta save something for the drought days). I found the book easy to read; the challenge came when I tried to figure out what I thought about the subject matter, even what I felt about it. I had thought I was pretty clear before I started the book, but have ended up having to reconsider. I’m so afraid of giving anything away that I don’t want to give any details about this story, just urge everyone to read it and talk to your friends about it. Believe me, you will have a lot to talk about.

As a writer, I was curious about the way Ishiguro handled the withholding of information to create suspense. There are lots of techniques, such as the one I call “the Chinatown” after the film (“‘We used to work together. In Chinatown.'”). Stephen Greenblatt calls it “the creation of a strategic opacity” in his book Will in the World. Ian Rankin—one of my favorite authors—uses this one effectively. There will just be an off-hand reference to an incident or a person early on, and I’ll think ‘Okay, there will be an explanation in the next page or two’. There isn’t, so I read a couple more pages. Eventually, I forget what it was I wanted to know, only that there was something . . . The missing information sets up a dissonance, something I’m barely aware of, like a burr under my mind saying ‘Read on! Read on!’ Then at the end of the book, there’s a profound sense of relief when the half-forgotten question is finally answered and the dissonance resolved.

What Ishiguro does here is much more subtle. He uses normal, familiar words, words that I only gradually realised were somehow off. Thus began the dissonance, ever so slightly at first, but growing. My interest didn’t even end with the book’s resolution. Months later, I find myself thinking about it and finding new insights—sometimes surprising ones—into what I believe and the consequences of my beliefs. Just what I want from a book.

Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton

Before leaving the Transcendentalists, I wanted to reread this young adult book where I first heard about them. I discovered it one cold, rainy day at Whippoorwill Girl Scout camp where—having escaped from the prescribed activities—I was poking around some bookshelves in a dark corner of the hall. Behind some mildewed Readers Digest Condensed Books, I found this book, the corners of the cover frayed by mice, the pages brown-spotted with damp. I hid behind a chair and got through the first seven chapters before being discovered by one of the leaders and told to put it back.

It took me almost two years to find the book again and read the rest. I couldn’t remember the title or the author’s name, only the story, and after a while I began to believe that I had dreamed the whole thing. When I finally came across the book on the library’s shelves, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was as though a fantasy had suddenly become real.

Ned and Nora live in a Gothic monstrosity of a house in Concord, Massachusetts, with their aunt and uncle. Aunt Lily teaches piano lessons to support the family because Uncle Freddy—who used to be a famous scholar—has lost his mind and spends his days arguing with marble busts of Thoreau and Emerson. The children have a run-in with a couple of town worthies who consider the house and the family a blot on their sacred soil and threaten to take the house for unpaid taxes and burn it down.

The children discover a mysterious room at the top of the house with some dusty toys and two twin beds. Confronting Aunt Lily, they learn that Lily and Freddy’s youngest sister and brother had gone missing from that room as children, followed by Lily’s sweetheart, Prince Krishna. Ned and Nora decide to sleep in the room themselves. In their dreams, they are plunged into magical adventures, adventures which turn dangerous.

There are a few books I read as a child whose images have become so ingrained in my thoughts that they have become part of my private mythology. This is one of them. It wasn’t until I was grown and had read Emerson and Thoreau for myself that I recognised that each adventure embodies one of the Transcendentalist ideas and images, such as the rough wooden harp the children find while climbing in an elm tree, an aeolian harp, although it is not named in the book. The wind blowing across the harp strings translates the voices of nature into sounds they could understand: “‘These trees and stones are audible to me,'” as Uncle Freddy quotes Emerson.

The adventure that I think about most often, though, is the one where they go into a mirror and find two statues of themselves, two of Nora, two of Ned, a little older than their current age. Ned and Nora separate, each choosing one of their statues. Behind that one stand two more. Their choices eventually lead them to statues of themselves as adults, at which point they are able to see if they have chosen wisely. Unlike real life, though, they are able to go back and make different choices.