Your book The Answer to the Riddle is Me is subtitled “A Memoir of Amnesia.” Isn’t that a contradiction?
Yes and no. On the surface, it has the pleasing allure of an oxymoron. But deeper in, one of the things I remember best in my life is the time when I had no memory. My brain was stripped and open to sensory data. I think most of my life I treat life like triage as I move from errand to errand, chore to chore. These errands and chores create in my brain a hierarchy of the data I take in, things that aren’t associated with whatever task at hand get winnowed out of my consciousness. When I woke up on the train platform in India, I had no narrative, no chore, no task at hand, and so the sensory data I was receiving wasn’t ranked by any hierarchy. It flattened the world so that all data was of similar importance. The birds in the rafters were as important as the train in front of me. This feeling haunts me. It has made me aware of how much of the world I miss on a daily basis. In some ways I remember the feeling of no memory better than I remember anything else.
Your book came out of an essay. Can you talk about the difference between the essay and the memoir as forms?
The essay has a distance built into its structure. Essays are considerations of life. And because of this there’s a kind of lovely play between rhetoric and event. Vivian Gornick says that what’s remarkable about Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” is that it’s an essay about rage but the tone isn’t enraged. There’s a tonal space between the events and the narrator. In the essay the narrator doesn’t grow so much as the character that the narrator presents of herself grows (presumably into the person writing the essay). In memoir, the emphasis is more on the mimetic visceral uummmpph of the experience. In the essay version, I told my readers about my experience. In the memoir, I wanted them to feel it. I wanted the book to be disorienting and terrifying. I didn’t want there to be a safe remove.
But there is a safe remove. There are the sections where you investigate the science and history behind the malarial prophylaxis, Lariam, that was the result of your amnesia and hallucinations.
That’s true, but I also feel like I leave the door open at the end about whether or not Lariam was the true culprit. Because that’s how I feel now. I know a lot about Lariam and malaria as a result of the research I did for this book and it is the leading theory as to why what happened to me happened to me, but it’s a theory. I think the worst thing that can happen to a writer is a clear diagnosis. Diagnoses winnow away possibility and eliminate any data that doesn’t correspond to the diagnosis. A good non-fiction writer allows the play between experience and diagnosed condition. It’s the data that doesn’t fit the diagnosis that makes the writer idiosyncratic.
You come off as fairly unlikeable in the book (you cheat on girlfriends, you’re selfish, you’re accused of misogyny until your mother corrects that conception and tells you that you’re a full-fledged misanthrope, you drink and drive, you do things that seem to work against a healthy recovery.) Are you this unlikeable in life and if not why tell the story this way?
I don’t know if I’m unlikeable in real life. But I made a concerted effort to focus on the bad decisions, bad aspects of my personality in the book. I woke up in a train station with no idea who I was. The policeman who found me told me I was a drug addict. He took me to a guest house that was run by a woman who had lost her son to an overdose and they did a mini-intervention on me. When I started to hallucinate, all of my visions were ones where I was a failure. Again and again, a failure. When my parents did show up to get me, I thought they were hiding my sins from me. I was convinced I did horrible things in the world and with that mind set, I sought out evidence of my wrong-doings. So the events the reader gets in the book are filtered through a pretty unreliable narrator.
You write a pretty damning history of Lariam. Do you get people coming up to you with their own stories about the drug?
All the time. It kind of makes me realize that I got off easy. There’s been a lot of suicides on that drug.
Do you still have your dog Sally?
Yes. She’s 14 years old now and about 85 percent furniture. My daughter uses her as a trash compactor/bean bag.
Are you working on another book?
Yes. But I’m always suspicious when people talk about their books in progress. It’s like listening to a five year old tell you about his dream. You get about half that seems real and half that you know the kid is making up on the spot. Having said that my next book is about failure.
So another uplifting book?
It’s funny though. Hilarious failure.
DAVID STUART MACLEAN is a PEN/American Award–winning writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Ploughshares and on the radio program This American Life. He has a PhD from the University of Houston and is a cofounder of the Poison Pen Reading Series. He lives in Chicago.
Author photo by Heather Eidson Photography