The modern memoir squabble: Moral values matter Autobiography: Mere confessions fail, but these are good times for courageous, principled memoirs.

THE ARGUMENT

August 25, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Suddenly memoirs have surpassed fiction as the form of choice for young writers. At it's best memoirs hold no place for the self-congratulatory "I." More, it restores our chaotic age to the liberation of causality, to the truth that not all behavoir is forgiveable even as it may be understood. The nay-sayers notwithstanding, this is an exciting moment for memoirists with the courage to plumb those depths. Most don't.

Memoir certainly has attracted some of our most interesting and sophisticated writers, people beyond viewing writing as a form of confessional, both beginners and the seasoned novelist.

So say both James Atlas in an issue of the New York Times magazine (May 12, 1996) devoted entirely to "real-life stories," and so agrees New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford in their "Special Fiction Issue" (June 24 and July 1). "The memoir is here to stay," Atlas concludes in the Times lead article titled "The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now."

Skeptics were already in place, notably William Gass who in "The Art Of Self: Autobiography in an age Of Narcissism," a salvo sounded in May of 1994 in Harper's magazine. Gass dismisses the spate of memoirs already being published for their "self-absorption ... the principal preoccupation of our age." Memoir, Gass contends, ought, like biography, to progress to "larger themes ... those general social aspects from which the individual's traits had more specifically sprung."

This celebration of self, Gass fears, is no better than setting up a hermaphrodite's tent at the fair, a display of freaks of nature for pruriently commercial purposes. More recently in "The Confession Obsession," Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post (May 20) sees in these memoirs a form of public therapy, a celebration of dysfunction; both memoirs and novels become "vehicles for self-infatuation, the gloomier and more angst-haunted the better."

Certainly a goodly number of the memoirs being published confirm the worst expectations. Often they merely catalogue events. In "First Comes Love" by Marion Winik (Pantheon Books, 258 pages, $23), a woman marries a gay man and then wallows in her anguish when he won't have sex with her. Whatever shaped the dimensions of her self-destructiveness, Winik lacks the courage to explore. When Winik goes on to have unprotected sex with this HIV-positive man in the hope of conceiving a child, she becomes morally repellent, and she doesn't know it.

Such a self-congratulatory, ahistorical approach to the self is also apparent in a much more accomplished writer, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison who in "An Accidental Biography" (Houghton Mifflin, 396 pages, $24.95) announces she has "no wish to be imprisoned in a frame of my own creation," to mine general meaning out of the flux. Equally undermining of the potentialities of memoir is Mary Gordon's much-praised "The Shadow Man" (Random House, 274 pages, $24) Gordon admits she was not affected by her discovery that her father had lied to her, that he didn't go to Harvard, was an anti-Semite, etc. If her quest leaves childhood memories untouched, wherein lies the story?

In "Speak Sunlight" (St. Martin's Press, 177 pages, $20.95) Alan Jolas never reveals the effect on his psyche of having been virtually raised not by his parents but by two Spanish servants. "Home Again, Home Again" by Thomas Froncek (Arcade, 241 pages, $23.95) does not chronicle the personal cost of his having been son to a restless, discontented, troubled father. If memoir would assume the story telling function for which, as Bill Buford suggests, we as a culture are thirsty, it must meet the demands of fiction for a developing emotional trajectory.

Ignores the reader

This shallowness characterizes even well-received memoirs like "Dreaming" (Random House, 343 pages, $23). Carolyn See compelling shows her family dysfunction only to back away from revealing the psychic consequences. Without such psychic mapping, these books seem like underdeveloped novels composed entirely of unmediated description and dialogue. Such stubborn resistance to facing the internal damage obliterates any hope of catharsis for the reader.

In fact many dysfunction memoirs seem curiously oblivious to the reader's presence, as if the pain visited upon the author frees her from the obligation to involve the reader. By page 317 See is still breezily defining her issue as one of forgiving and forgetting, her tone utterly at war with the darkness of her material. Hers was a mother who beat her and hated her, after all.

When then does the personal memoir shine? The best of this new breed of memoirists are survivors burning to dramatize how they came through. Homilists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," they grab the lapels of the reader to reveal what they have been through, how they have changed, grown, lived with their scars, how they have earned their sanity, so that the reader, like Coleridge's "Wedding-Guest" may grow "sadder and wiser."

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