[17 April 2009]
Much to Your Chagrin
Author: Suzanne Guillette
March 2009, 432 pages, $25.00
For a while it seemed that to write a successful memoir, you must have prevailed against some terrible adversity: rape, drugs, racism, war, or private school. David Sedaris tentatively introduced us to the idea that if you could be funny or dysfunctional enough, your life might be worth retelling. Then Oprah countered to make us believe that only really heartbreaking memoirs deserved the attention of the American public.
Unfortunately, Oprah has had some embarrassments lately. James Frey’s book turned out to be a fake. Then so did Angel at the Fence, the Holocaust memoir Oprah called the greatest love story of all time. Somewhere in between, a privileged woman in California convinced a New York editor that she’d been in a gang for a while and survived to tell the inspiring story of Love and Consequences. Even Motoko Rich wrote a glowing review—and the follow-up article reporting it was a lie.
Enter Suzanne Guillette with her boldly titled, Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment. The word “memoir” is interjected eagerly into the title. But is not a Holocaust memoir. Or gang memoir. Or a drug memoir. It is an embarrassment memoir. The notion made me wonder: is embarrassment one of the great tragedies of modern society? If you ask the folks on Twitter or the myriad “20-Something Bloggers” advertising exquisitely error-laden lives, the answer might be: of course.
Even our politicians are experts in shame and embarrassment, although their embarrassment tends towards shame. Shame is what lurks between the lines of Chagrin and ultimately the silent but omnipotent wind that guides the narrative arc. Guillette began her project as a collection of other people’s embarrassing stories, only to find that the truly embarrassing story she was avoiding was her own. Au revoir, collection, Voila memoir!
But it is the moment when Guillette ponders the difference between shame and embarrassment when her ship alters its course. Arguably, she has plenty of reasons to feel ashamed. Her job is going nowhere. She is botching her book project and slept with her agent. She is fighting an eating disorder and steely fending off the friends and family who are trying to help her. But the reason that this is a memoir, and not just another book of chick lit, is because Guillette does not get weepy on us. She just tells the story like it is, and in doing so, writes a book that embodies the zeitgeist of our time and the changing face of media consumption.
An article in the Daily Beast recently suggested that new wave of fake memoirs is not due to more liars; it is a result of better detectives. Guillette’s book suggests two things important things about the future of memoirs and publishing. The first is that no one can challenge the validity of your own sense of truth. Chagrin is a study in one woman’s worldview, and if even if we do not agree with how she sees it, we cannot tell her she is lying. The second is a gentle reminder that it is the author’s job to entertain. Guillette’s antics are invariably amusing and her quirky assertiveness is the mortar that holds her writing together. While memoirs of the past relied on notable tragedies and ailments to grab readers’ attention, Guillette simply offers herself.
Perhaps it is a bold move. Clearly, the book’s memoir categorization caught my attention. But it is a memoir and it is the kind of memoir we are going to see more of as society becomes more fractured and less hierarchical: one that tells the story of everyman. (Or woman.) Guillette’s book is more than just the story of one woman’s success over a personal crisis, it is a fingerprint of a moment in time and mirror in which readers, men and women alike, can peer into to see reflections of their own lives.
One might say: Immediacy is the new austerity. Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe just got a book deal, and in all likelihood, the people who publishers expect to buy the book have been receiving three emails a day from Plouffe since the nomination in June. In our world, the small and specific are transcending into the realm of thematically epic. As the economy continues to crumble, a book depicting the plight of our neighbor may sell more copies than one about a war that happened in the previous millennium. Much to Your Chagrin may not just have marked a turning point for its author, but also the industry at large.