“When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. ” —Isaac Bashevis Singer
At what point does the past outweigh the present?
If today, as you read these words, happens to be, say, your 32nd birthday, that would mean that the ratio of days you have already lived to the day you are living now is 11,680 to 1. Unless you are one of the dozen or so people worldwide blessed or cursed with hyperthymesia (the ability to recall every day of your life in perfect detail), most all of the once vividly painful or pleasurable or quotidian days of your past are now little more than papery husks.
And because today, too, will wither tomorrow, you will never have more than a single day at a time of perfect vividness, and an ever-growing stack of “ghost existences”. But 12,000 or so husks, illuminated here and there by brief moments that still thrill or sting, can begin to add up to something substantial and may, for some, take on more actual presence than the visceral and palpable present. If you are the sort of person who needs time and perspective to make sense of the past, and for whom the past ripens as it ages, then you can even feel crushed beneath the papers’ weight.
I am not sure if Augusten Burroughs has been crushed by his own past, but it clearly weighs very heavily on him. This, I think, is one of the qualities that distinguishes the contemporary memoir from what used to be called memoirs, plural, as in the antique phrase “he’s writing his memoirs”. The latter being an activity that the public asks for, as an account of an accomplished, future-focused person at the center of great historical events; the former being something that no one in particular has asked for, written by someone whose focus is on the past, and generally by a writer whom no one has ever heard of.
And yet because the contemporary memoirist has a great or terrible story to tell he or she becomes known, as does the painful story that started it all.
Burroughs’ story in A Wolf At the Table is, as these things go, as painful as most, being a detailed account of his evidently psychopathic father and the horrors he visited upon Burroughs, his passive and mentally disturbed mother, his brother, and even his childhood pets.
In telling his father’s story, which includes moments such as his allowing a family dog to die a slow and agonizing death from tongue cancer and deliberately starving to death his son’s beloved guinea pig, Burroughs does not even attempt to avoid indulging in bitterness and hatred.
This bitterness is accentuated in retrospect by Burroughs’ emotional circumstances as a child. All he wants is for his father to love him and cuddle him, and continually reaches out only to be coldly rebuffed, and yet he has no way of knowing that his father is no more capable of feeling or expressing love than a dog is of diagnosing and curing his own cancer.
Interestingly, though, his retrospective viewpoint, and the things he has learned as an adult, also leaven the bitterness to some degree. Burroughs, a fine writer, is practiced at what I would describe as “aestheticized self-pity”, and this memoir succeeds whenever that self pity remains under his artistic control, and is bodied forth through symbol or image.
The very first words of A Wolf At the Table exemplifies Burroughs at his best:
Sitting in my high chair, I held a saltine cracker up to my eye and peered through one of the tiny holes, astonished that I could see so much through such a small opening. Everything on the other side of the kitchen seemed nearer when viewed through this little window.
The cracker was huge, larger than my hand. And through this pinprick hole I could see the world.