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There has been far too much attention paid in recent years to the issue of falsity in the memoir, and not nearly enough (which is to say, none whatsoever) to the issue of falsity in fiction.

Michael R. Brown’s new memoir, She and I: A Fugue, is stylistically one of the most unusual books you’re ever likely to encounter and that, in itself, will recommend it to a few readers. It isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste and wasn’t much to mine, but Brown does some interesting and even refreshing things with the language on almost every page. The narrative itself is somewhat more conventional—it’s an impressionistic account of Brown’s relationships with the women in his life—but even from this perspective, the book feels refreshing, if only in the tenderness expressed towards the opposite sex. After the misogyny of Flynn’s character (can a woman be a misogynist?  Apparently so) it is a pleasure to encounter a worldview in which women are depicted predominantly as physically and spiritually beautiful. 

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She and I: A Fugue

  Michael R. Brown

(Petrarca Press; US: )

She and I, as the title would suggest, is the story of Brown’s love affair with a much-younger ballerina named Mira. The book has its origins in Brown’s widely followed blog, and one of the reasons for the blog’s popularity, it would seem, is the honesty with which Brown depicts his social and sexual relationships with women, including an account of the cruel death by cancer of Brown’s wife, Beth.  (Mira came later.) Early in the book, Brown also candidly portrays his childhood sexual exploitation at the hands of an older boy. 

Brown is an adherent of Ayn Rand, who had conveyed to Brown, in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, the message that one should “never evade…(so) I forced myself to remember. I tested details for clarity every day. If I found them fuzzy, I sharpened them; if I retracted, I pushed myself forward.” This effort is evident on every page of the book.

So too, for better or worse, is his odd style:

“We went on car-rides, and for brief times troubles weren’t.”

“I hoped my mother’d live to taste her plan-fruits, and that their juice’d be pure and strong and sweet.”

If at times this style makes She and I seem like a self-published simulacrum of a Beat poet’s drug-addled prose, there are other times when Brown’s writing is perfectly pitched to the subject under discussion, as when he employs a staccato, seesawing rhythm to depict the playful back-and-forth of flirtation:

“She suddenly broke in with pantomimed poke and tickle. I knew directly were going to become flirtatious—I pantomimed elbow-nudge, declared tickle fight could be brutal—no prisoners, I warned—she bragged she always won, then admitted more like almost always—I said she was arousing my competitive fires—she laughed, declared she’d still win…”

And there are other points in this book, though in my opinion too few and far between, where Brown demonstrates a strong, straightforward skill at bringing to life on the page the things of this world:

“It was a square hole, a few feet in from the final drop-off, broken by long-ago picks into the solid rock. Then the men of the nineteenth century had poured in concrete and set a massive iron ring wherethrough to run lines from their ships coming in from sea—whether small dinghies or the great ships themselves, I knew not. Thus secured, they had brought to land their reapings from the bodies of whales. The ring was still there, massive, rust-frozen to the iron post coming up from the block, and within the space of the broken hole, clustered in the pool of water ever-freshed by waves, were sea anemones with stretched tendrils, translucent light blue-green in the dark stoned water.”

This is beautiful, both on its own terms and because it, like the rest of this memoir, seems to reflect a small corner of the world’s reality. Unfamiliar maybe, and eccentric, and not necessarily our own reality, which most of us in any event don’t need more of—but it’s somebody’s.

The thing is, there has been far too much attention paid in recent years to the issue of falsity in the memoir, and not nearly enough (which is to say, none whatsoever) to the issue of falsity in fiction.  Slapping the word ‘Fiction’ on the cover of a book is not a “get out of jail free” card or, more accurately, a license to kill; a novelist has just as much obligation as does a non-fiction writer to depict the world truthfully and with sympathetic attention to characters’ motivations, and that applies even to fantasy, where archetypal and psychological rules still apply, and science fiction, where the laws of physics must either be explained, or plausibly explained away. 

But in a mystery novel, which takes place in a world we all recognize, the obligation is even greater. That doesn’t mean you can’t have contempt for a child-murderer, but if you, as author or character or both, have contempt for everyone else, too, including the victims and their families, then there is no moral significance to a murder, and no satisfaction in bringing the murderer to justice. 

I seem to remember from my days in college that the meaning of Keats’ lines were a source of puzzlement to scholars, and there is no question that those lines and the entire poem contain some ambiguities. From my own perspective, however, the coincidental pairing of this brace of books make it very clear what the poet means when he says “truth is beauty”. 

Its corollary, that an unwillingness or inability to depict the world truthfully will inevitably result in ugliness, is part two of the equation, and seems equally self-evident to me.

Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman

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