The memoir by its very nature seems to be a contentious literary form. Why a memoir when there is autobiography? As Gore Vidal wrote in his own memoir, Palimpsest, “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” The memoir is presumably the form that allows one to express what Montaigne has termed one’s “essence”. The memoir wants to escape the shackles of drudgery that the autobiography can impose – all those facts! all that research! – and create art out of life, art out of the essence of a lived experience.
Ah, this mysterious Art. “Art is seduction,” writes Susan Sontag in her essay ‘On Style’. “But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subject.”
Having had only brief flirtations with the memoir over the years, and that too with heartbreaking, hard-hitting ones like Richard Wright’s Black Boy, or Phoebe Glockner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, or even a recent read, Kristin Hersh’s Ratgirl, I was ripe for seduction by the cheery memoir. Because, it must be admitted, one has preferences for memoir tainted and perhaps limited by personal taste. What turns you on? The sad-looking writer with flopsy hair and nihilist world-views? Well, enough of that. There comes a time in every straight girl’s life when you start to wonder, What about those incredibly well-coiffed men with their well-adjusted lives and their relentless belief that individual choice determines happiness, the ones with pastel polo t-shirts? Why not?
Similarly, one thinks, why not read a memoir about an all-American ordinary life? Because no stories are simply ordinary, as seasoned readers know. All it takes is one superlatively talented writer to raise her bow and arrow and aim directly at the heart of an experience, the heart of a life, and bulls-eye! Art is born. Right? Isn’t that how it should work?
Except, maybe not. I don’t know if I’d describe former Salon writer Heather Havrilesky as a superlatively talented writer, but I do know, having read some of her online articles, that I thought her a smart, self-aware, funny writer with a talent for capturing the awkward and the embarrassing. I read this recent interview with her in Paris Review where she says, “I’m not trying to write the world’s greatest novel, and I’m not trying to write a best seller, I’m just writing what comes out.” Lovely! “Just writing what comes out”.
What comes out and how it appears on the page depends a lot on how much the writer wants to seduce, and how willing the reader is to be seduced. I was willing; Havrilesky seemed so charming! But just as a bad date will reveal its doom within the first few minutes of physical presence, Disaster Preparedness revealed itself to be “not my kind of book” within the first 28 pages. Unfortunately, having committed myself to a review, there were 211 pages left to go.
What makes a book the kind of book that is “not my kind of book”? Perhaps it’s a book that delivers one thing while promising another. Disaster Preparedness’ jacket copy claims it’s a “thoughtful, funny memoir about surviving the real and imagined perils of childhood and early adulthood”, and an interview with Havrilevsky herself in the publicity material included with the review copy revealed a sensibility highly-attuned to the marginal, the funny, the absurd, and the awkward. But Disaster Preparedness is interested in exploring none of that. Disaster Preparedness is 239 pages of navel-gazing and an attempt by one American 40-something mother, wife, and writer to present her life as Something Worthy.
What it reads like is an extended Hallmark card. The chapters are broken into different themes and issues: sibling fights, weird mothers, weirder fathers, female friendships, sex and the virgin female, yet none of the themes and issues are explored or teased out. What makes a reader willing to be seduced by your memoir? It’s a desire to find a point of connection and celebration and remonstration over lives – regardless of whether it’s a boring or extraordinary life, regardless of whether your life has any similarities to mine or none at all.
What Havrilesky does with her memoir is perform some cutesy version herself for the reader with low expectations and presumably very little attention. Chapters are begun with an anecdote relating to herself and her family or personal experience, and then quickly concluding with comforting platitudes or trite, dreary phrases designed to convey import and meaning. “We would never be hopeful, because hope was naïve. The hopeful got hurt”, for example, are the sentences included in the final paragraph of a chapter called, ‘Fear Itself’, devoted to the “special fears” of a child. But childhood fears are not special; they only becomes special when the narrative is given shape by the unique perspective of the author. It’s a common-enough situation – lots of children, through a vivid imagination that perceives phantasm in the every-day, have probably feared something that the adults in their life consider banal or ordinary. In Havrilesky’s hands, this is filtered through memories of her fifth-grade self terrified by her teacher’s particular ability for predicting doom, her mother’s inability to soothe and comfort, and her father’s joy in tormenting his kids.
And? And nothing. That seems to be all Havrilesky wanted to convey. A sort of quick and effective noting down of The Things That Happened in My Life, as if to say – see, my life had its difficult moments. What convinces a writer to imagine that simply offering crumbs of one’s life in tepid, limp prose is enough to forge a connection with readers who have had similar lives, or readers who have had better lives, or readers who have had lives that were much, much worse?
The chapter detailing her experience of losing her virginity is titled ‘A Tree Falls in the Forest’; that particular philosophical conundrum is employed as a superficial metaphoric device throughout the chapter. “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? No, I decided. It makes no sound at all,” Havrilesky writes at the start. As the chapter progresses, while Havrilesky details in remarkably hackneyed, reductive language the complex situations that arise when two girls who, as friends, compete with each other for sexual attention and validation, the tree shows up again: “If a tree falls in the forest, even if looks like no one is there to hear it, they’re there. And they’re listening.” Okay.
In the next few pages, Havrilesky talks about this friendship, which has weathered the storm and progressed into adulthood even as Havrilesky still endures the painful, awkward jolts of feeling like the ugly-duckling sidekick despite the fact that she is no longer any of those things. So Havrilesky comforts herself by concluding that all these elements of herself – “the also-ran, the ugly duckling, the grabby slut, the loser” – are the factors that make her who she is. And? And nothing. Whoopee.
The damned tree shows up again to conclude this chapter: “If a tree falls in the forest, it makes a thundering boom. And then it’s over, and it’s quiet again, and the whole thing really isn’t as bad as you imagined it would be. You dust yourself off and keep walking, across the mossy forest floor, through the dappled sunlight.” Is that meant to be poetic? Is this where the gently swelling chords of the music give way to the aching sounds of the violin? Is that the point of connection where the author of the memoir tries to reach out to her audience and seduce the reader? I don’t know; I was suppressing a yawn.
But to be fair, if there are moments when Havrilesky’s prose and subject matter goes beyond the immediate concerns of her authorial intentions, it’s when she writes about her deceased father, like when she finds an old book of his in his bedside table, or comes across old lists he made. It’s when the focus is deflected from the self and directed outward that the memoir is relieved of its pedestrian, stale shackles and achieves something close to transcendence. Unfortunately, these moments are really too far and few between – a few paragraphs in a bloated book of over-200 pages – and by then they nothing to soothe the really-annoyed reader or save the memoir from its true intention, which appears to be Havrilesky’s need to let the world know that she’s really not as bad as she thinks she is. She’s self-critical and self-deprecating, sure, but in a way that allows herself to wear those traits as a badge of honour because she now has a husband, a family, and A Life.
Disaster Preparedness reads like a lengthy exercise in self-congratulation disguised as “we are all flawed, we must all love ourselves” rah-rah feel-good proselytizing. Havrilesky’s just trying to convince us all to convert to her school of “it’s all going to be all right” thinking based on her own limited life experience. Towards the end of the book, she writes, “I am flawed, flawed, flawed, and I will rarely feel shiny and complete and utterly calm and prepared.” To which I reply, I am bored, bored, bored, and I too will rarely feel shiny and complete and utterly calm and prepared.
If Havrilesky had a story she was keen to tell or feelings or thoughts or experiences she was trying to convey, it was lost the minute she set forth to present her life-story as a tidy-narrative with all the necessary ups and downs but with the required happy ending of someone who has found herself amidst the amazing things and people in her life. This could have yet been a beautiful story if Havrilesky allowed us to accompany her as she shows how this beauty comes to be instead of merely telling us in uninspired, lacklustre prose.
If art is seduction, then, as Sontag reminds us, in the particular case of memoir-writing let it be said that the memoir cannot seduce another when the author is too busy trying to seduce herself. All romance that may initially start out with promise, but narcissism is the one attempt at seduction that is bound to fail over and over again. As in romance, so in memoir.