March 08, 2011
As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)
I mentioned this because, though I admit to having reservations with Genzlinger’s attack approach, I fear he is on to something. Personally, the form–the memoir–makes me uneasy. There is so much self-revelation, for starters. (I’m a midwesterner by birth and self-directed effusiveness makes us nervous.) I worry too, that the memoir trend is an attempt at masking authorial artlessness; that, in a previous generation, all this “oversharing” would have been boiled in the caldron of art and transformed into the alchemy of literature. Then there is my natural suspicion of anything existing in such plenty. Surely, quality must diminish with quantity? Too much of a good thing? Lastly, and pardon me please, there is the “woman question.” So many memoirs by women! Do we blame Elizabeth Gilbert? Her memoir, Eat, Love, Pray, set loose the tsunami of female memoirists. What is the male reader to make of it? But wait a minute. Hold on there! As a reviewer, I was recently assigned two memoirs, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Joyce Carol Oats’, A Window’s Tale. And I liked them both. And, a few years ago there was The Year of Magical Thinking, by one of my favorite authors, Joan Didion. There is nothing artless about these works–by fine women writers. Still, I wonder at it all.
So it was that I tentatively picked up Susan Conley’s new memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf). I live in Portland, Maine, and Ms. Conley is one of our esteemed local writers. I monitor the local literary scene. It is a sense of duty I manifest, committed as I am to “the book” and “the community.” But The Foremost Good Fortune is (another) memoir. By a woman writer. And has earned an Oprah recommendation, to boot! It is about kids. And living abroad. And cancer. Surely, alas I feared, I would find the memoir that defines Mr. Genzlinger’s conceit. Picking up a book, when one’s heart is not in it, is a reader’s task, born lonely and given to strict discipline. There is little joy in such a chore. So, imagine the delight when chore becomes pleasure, when dread gives ground, then takes flight, in the face of–surprise!–art. Such was my experience reading this book.
Ms. Conley’s story consists of several themes. They include, travel, motherhood and marriage, dislocation, friendship, family–and cancer. Simply stated, Susan and Tony Conley, and their two young boys (ages 4 and 6), move to Beijing from Maine. Tony, a consultant, has accepted a two-year position in the city. His time will be largely spent on business matters. (He learned Mandarin as an undergraduate at Stanford and “speaks Chinese almost as if he’s lived there all his life.”) Susan is left largely to her own devices, her days centered around the boys, Aidan and Thorne. She is working on a novel. She hires a teacher of Mandarin. She attempts to make social inroads. Challenges are experienced on all fronts, as to be expected–school for the boys, cultural difficulties, city life, homesickness, and so on. Not anticipated, alarmingly, is cancer. Ms. Conley discovers lumps in her left breast and, half-way through the book, the adventure takes a dark turn. Treatment ensues. Care is provided. She undergoes her first surgery in China, but travels back to the states for subsequent treatment, finding the Chinese approach less than assuring. To wit: “Then Dr. Lan pops his head in through my curtain and smiles. He says he’s thinking it would be best to go back in and finish the surgery and proposes an on-the-spot mastectomy. He is trying, I decide, to make up for his nonchalance. ‘Get me out of here,’ I say to Tony in English. ‘You have to get me out of here.’”
She survives. What lingers, however, upon her return to China from the States, is the experience, like a damping smog over Beijing: the cancer experience. The latter half of the book depicts her struggle to escape it altogether, then, resigned that it cannot be escaped, place it in a context. Her cancer, she writes, “struck without warning–quickly, in the middle of the proverbial night–and it would be great if someone could give me a hand. If someone could help translate what in God’s name just happened to us, and tell me where, by the way, my left breast has gone.” In a recent interview she tellingly referred to her disease as “my cancer.” And that is ultimately the territory she enters–a place where the cancer is not escaped, but becomes hers. It is an almost heartbreakingly human story, made more so when rendered through the eyes of the young boys.
At one point, putting the boys to bed, Thorn states that he is undecided. “About what?” asks his mother. “I can’t decide if I ever want to be ten,” he replies. “…if I’m ten, it means I am closer to dying.” The young child is comforted, yet we know what has transpired, as does his mother. Her illness is not far below the surface and the reader, like the family, senses the tension it generates. It will, as in this example, bubble to the surface, creating an unforeseen ripple. It is a charming aspect of the book that the reader is gently pulled into the family dynamic. Ms. Conley’s voice is quiet and warming and her friendship is inviting. But friendship has its costs. As a friend, we too will harbor a quiet worry.
There is a Daoist image Ms. Conley employs that philosophically moves the story. “What I’ve been able to figure out about Daoism in the years I’ve been married to Tony,” she writes, “is that there’s one big river we’re all swimming in. The trick, Tony explains, is to not fight the current. To let the river carry you.” If the narration of this book is an indicator of this notion, we are rewarded by the flow that transports us. Ms. Conley’s voice accordingly, is calm and natural, lending credence to Genzlinger’s criteria that the memoirist must write well. She only wavers as her sickness wages an effort to displace a frenetic, but centered, life with a sick life. When this happens, the reader is afforded a highly personal and artful experience; the struggle being subtile but well drawn.
The successful memoir, for this reader, artistically renders a confluence of the personal essay and the well-notated diary (Montaigne meets Pepys!). That is to say, the memoir should translate a blend of introspection and observation melded with experience. Not to put too bold a stamp on it, but it should echo Joyce and “…go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience….” The Foremost Good Fortune indeed delivers the reality of experience–to a refreshingly high degree. I am no longer scared of the memoir.