Literary style and lessons in memory

In his 2011 book “Memoir: An Introduction”, scholar G. Thomas Couser argues that we do not go to the genre so much for detail or style as for “wisdom and self-knowledge”, for that. that the main character, who is still the author, learned. Sometimes, however, style is the lesson. Earlier this year, Seattle poet Paul Hunter published “Clownery,” which follows Hunter from birth in the rural Midwest, through college, marriage, fatherhood, divorce, high school education and in college, jobs of grease-filled shirts and gear, caring for a sick sister and playing with her grandchildren. The chapters end with Hunter’s end-of-life meditations, “trying to avoid a lip-smacking bitterness” as he imagines “the end of the planet as a hospitable house.” Hunter published his first chapbook in 1970 and has given us verse on rural and wild America, and practical prose on sustainable agriculture, every few years since 2000. In “Antics, rather than using “I” or “me” or naming characters, Hunter tells his own story as that of an unnamed “clown”.

This simple device has amazing effects, making Hunter’s life both more generic – it’s easier to see yourself in “the clown” than in “Paul Hunter” – and funnier and sadder. “One morning in the country, the little clown’s mother washed her mother’s hair in the kitchen pantry, behind the curtain where they boiled their water and took their whirlpool bath,” he writes. And later: “The clown knew nothing about planning, and hung on a nail ripped his pants. He got caught and got caught until he was practically naked. The soft shoe aspects of puberty and old age, when we can feel both too big and too small, too late and too early, almost too easily correspond to vanity: the. . . . Clowns were born crying with greasy lips anyway, and the falls required lifelong practice, ”Hunter writes. “The clowns were still at a tricky stage,” “hiding nervous flat feet. . . in heavy shoes. Sentence after sentence, it manages to sound like a chatterbox, a corn-fed storyteller, although every time you finish a page or chapter you realize how elegantly the volume is put together.

Hunter’s Unusual Autobiography is one of the few recent books that reinvent, or fracture, the form of memories. All come from small presses; all come well after the elegant, formally inventive, and popular books of the late 90s memoir boom (Dave Eggers “A heartbreaking work of astonishing genius, “for example, and Lauren Slater”Layer“). Popular memoirs these days are more blunt: It’s usually easy to tell what sets the lives they tell apart, so that readers and reviewers alike focus on their topics, whether it’s Appalachia (Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance), weight, shame and trauma. (Roxane Gay’s “Hunger”), or plant science (Hope Jahren’s almost perfect “Lab girl“).

Yet experiments in the genre continue, many of them, like Maggie Nelson’s groundbreaking book, “The Argonauts”, From 2015, intimately linked to the drive towards new forms, and to the use of fragments and white space, in contemporary poetry. These memoirs are inspired by prose poems and lyrical essays, such as those in “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine. They also use the devices of poetry – interruption, compression, extended metaphor – to pay continuous attention to actual individual lives, and, not coincidentally, they come from independent publishers known for their poets and poems. .

Writer Jessica Anne told the Chicago Tribune that she started her book “A manual for nothing“because” I was excited to read unclassifiable books from authors like Maggie Nelson and Lidia Yuknavitch, and wanted to try it. She could have fashioned from the material of her life a conventional memory of family dysfunction and poor sexual decisions. Anne was raised – or not – by a mother whose streak of boyfriends rivaled, in their unreliability, her streak of illnesses, including a battle with terminal cancer that seems to have been imaginary. Anne attended a Fame-style performing arts high school, dropped out of college, discovered feminism, traveled to London, returned to Chicago to pursue a career as a singer and monologue, and settled down. (with her husband) to write the book.

“A Manual for Nothing” is part a collage of half-memorized facts, part an ironic guide to femininity and part an imaginary dialogue, with parts that speak volumes for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Patti LuPone. His numbered propositions, many of them in the second person, some absurd, increase a willful resistance to realism, even as they frame what appear to be facts of his life. From “Maroon Chart”, a short chapter on menstruation: “Ovulation stains the blood of a period like a stage curtain. . . . Once the menstrual blood is brilliant, you become your father’s next of kin. Elsewhere in the book, Anne imagines saying to a boyfriend, “I thought we were forever! I thought you were the pearl onion on my special, special day! That’s probably not what she said at the time.

The dismemberment of a life into lists – one of the chapters consists of thirty-three short nominal sentences – allows Anne to define events which must have terrified her at the time (the feigned cancer of her mother, for example) no not like the most important moments in his life. but as a material to be assimilated, transformed into something a few inches from a joke. An unwanted sexual experience is “not quite rape, it’s just one of those awkward nights of laughing and chatting. . . . Everyone is laughing at you. Do not Cry. In order to free herself from her past and push back the expectations of patriarchy – as her jagged form suggests – she must generalize, satire, cut her life story into pieces that she can crumple or rearrange. Paul Hunter learns equanimity by presenting his life as the life of a circus clown; Jessica Anne learns to imagine control.

Brooklyn-based songwriter and poet Jasmine Dreame Wagner, in her own recent memoir, “A clear day”, Learns to notice the peculiarity and to get out of his own desire to generalize, to let the big theories explain his life. “On a Clear Day” is an extensive book of travelers’ observations, cultural critiques, and quarter-life crisis notes on the deserts, art galleries, and bohemians of Brooklyn in our “age.” or listicles “. It’s the kind of book that tries to take the temperature of a generation (Wagner’s first book came out in 2012) or at least an artistic and artistic urban slice of a generation. In Wagner’s Brooklyn, “the cacophony of lo-fi indie rock reverb” is also “the sound of gentrification,” the sound of if only, “” the sound of why me. “Throughout the volume, Wagner intelligently uses his role models (Didion, Deleuze, CD Wright, Leslie Jamison).

Drawing inspiration from the highly quotable verses of poets, sets and first-person statements from travel writers, Wagner has made a book to draw from, open almost at random, or get lost. In this regard, the book resembles, as she knows, the endless branching paths of social media, which become her subject: “My method of describing the sunset, its noise, is also noise. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. The fragmentary prose, made up of disconnected observations and advice, dates back to the Bible, but Wagner’s combination of patience and nervousness, and his search for the “real, the presence, the material” in endless excerpts to escape it, seem to match our age of distraction and hyper-alerting, where we might look up from Proust or the Grand Canyon to see if we’ve been retweeted, liked, or tagged.

Wagner presents the sublimity of deserts, the welcome alienation of new sites, “the ripples of the wind in the dunes, the ripples of the dunes on the tectonic plate”, almost as a more conventional travelogue would do. But her desire to say what she sees runs counter to her critic’s desire for generalization – it is as if she grasped both the high-level wisdom that G. Thomas Couser seeks in all her memoirs and for the basic level. the immediacy that Joseph Conrad sought when he said that he wrote fiction “above all to show you”. Some gallery artists face the same dilemma: Should they focus on the visual experience or on difficult abstract ideas? Sometimes Wagner manages to keep up with both Couser and Conrad. His description of winter in the suburbs, for example, treats snow as a tangible symbol of abstraction, but also as an alternative: “the snow erases the words on the mall marquee. He has no part. He talks about no previous experience. . . . Like puffy chicks in our shells, we must scrape its opacity to free ourselves. “

This line implies – in harmony with almost all memories, but against the grain of certain poets – that we still have some selves to free. Wagner seems to believe it, but she doesn’t take it for granted: she is worried, and who wouldn’t want it, that the speaking ego these days looks too much like an advertisement or a means of self-glorification. In her crowded Brooklyn, “to ensure a voice equal to that of business.” . . people become brands, “displaying” the qualities of successful brands, such as media visibility [and] consistency of message. Sell ​​yourself, in other words, or get erased. This is a grim conclusion for the tradition of memoirs from St. Augustine to the present day, and it is a conclusion that Wagner’s artful fragments, like Anne’s sarcastic lists and Hunter’s tender metaphors, reject. “The closer I get to my own self-effacement”, she writes of her stay in the deserts of the southwest, “the stronger the envy of my work / history … If my language is obscure / I will disappear in its vapor. “

Ann G. Starbuck