Writing in the New York Times recently (“We All Have a Life. Must We All Write About It?” 25 March 2005), William Grimes bemoaned the ever-increasing proliferation of memoirs, calling it “a level playing field crowded with absolutely equal voices, each asserting its democratic claim on the reader’s attention”—nothing seems to stand out to him anymore. He even goes so far as to compose his own “memoir taxonomy”, an imposing list of categories that includes “the traumatic-childhood memoir”, “the substance-abuse memoir”, and “the spiritual-journey memoir”. And he asks the pertinent question, “Is there not something to be said for the unexamined life?” Judging by the mounting lists of titles under the category of memoir, the publishing industry’s answer seems to be a resounding NO!
Add to this over flowing mix the new entry James Atlas spins for us in My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale. After telling us that his book is not a memoir, he succumbs to pressure and settles on calling it a “generational memoir.” That designation seems to fit as well as any other one. As the author of critically acclaimed biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow and founding editor of the Penguin Lives series, Atlas knows how to tell the story of someone’s life in a compelling, wonderfully insightful way. But can he do the same with his own? The results are decidedly mixed.
This collection of 11 essays (generated in part from Atlas’s work for The New Yorker during the mid to late 1990s) covers an eclectic mix of the mundane and the profound. Opening with a moving portrait of his father, a once vibrant man who used to whip his son in tennis and is now dying of cancer at age 87, Atlas explores a vast array of subjects: his failures as a writer, his struggles with money, an over-stimulated mind housed in an inexorably aging body, and his belief that technology has so consumed our culture that books are no longer central in the lives of Americans.
Atlas is at his best in the essays where he examines larger issues that resonate in his own life. In “Time,” he writes about sifting through some of his late father’s personal papers and learns some of the background behind relatives he’d only heard of, never met. He reads letters and piles of documents, finds birth certificates and marriage licenses, and mines the scribblings in a grandmother’s journal, which is filled with poetry and other personal notes that shade in some of blank spaces in his immigrant family’s history. This exploration leads to some closing ruminations on photographs he finds in old family albums, the connections with those he’s assembled of his own family, and how photos convey a rich cultural history.
It is in the essay entitled “Books” that Atlas provides us with his most trenchant insights. A life-long reader he laments early on, “Why don’t we read the way we did, consumed, obsessed, oblivious to the world around us?” Much to his dismay, he admits that he has struggled to find time for reading the growing mountain of books that populate his apartment and spill off the top of his bedside table. In some of his funniest writing he describes how he skims reviews instead of reading the book, reads books on the fly, and has layers of others he’s purchased and in which he’s read just a few pages before consigning them to the growing pile of the unread. Many a “serious reader” can relate to just such habits, but we all continue to read nonetheless.
Atlas concludes his intriguing, but at times wandering, discourse on life and death by confessing to his own “spiritual isolation” and his fear that he will die before he finishes all the projects he’s set before him. Writing on human frailty and the inevitability of death is nothing new in contemporary memoir. Donald Hall does it more poetically in Life Work while James Ellroy blasts away at the deep recesses of his past in My Dark Places.
But perhaps it’s unfair to compare Atlas’s book with these more cohesive and eloquent examples of the genre. To his credit he recognizes that his stories describe “a highly rarified segment of society: the middle- and upper-middle class Manhattan dwellers who lead lives of privilege.” And yet, he hopes that in writing about his approaching late middle age and its “biological deadline,” some “readers beyond the city limits will recognize themselves in these pages.” This noble aspiration calls for us to continue to examine our lives, a good thing, but one can only hope they all don’t get published. That should let William Grimes sleep a bit better at night and give James Atlas fewer books to contend with. Then he can concentrate on reading the ones that really matter.