[22 June 2009]
“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.
Fat and Gristle
The tiny hole is, I believe, meant to suggest Burroughs’ exceedingly narrow and self-involved worldview. He is a remarkably self-centered writer, even for a memoirist; for example, he never even attempts to get under the skin of his brother, a minor figure in this story.
But the artful way in which he frames his narrow views is what makes this book, and a handful of other memoirs like it, so involving and, ultimately, so moving. If he were less self-obsessed, if he lived in the present or the future instead of in the past, and if he were not filled to the brim with old grudges and disappointments, he might be a better person, but he surely would not be a better writer.
There are many painterly passages in this book, such as, a few pages later, his account, at age five of temporarily losing his little playmate, Peter, on a street in Mexico. Burroughs and his mother and Peter’s mother “turned around and around on the sidewalk, like ballerinas from three different music boxes…” Perfect.
But then there are the other, rather more disappointing moments, like the one where Burroughs describes his desolate family life. He recounts, “I certainly offered to liven things up. More than once I suggested a family outing to Child’s toy store in Northampton or a swimming trip to Lake Wyola. But no. They were having too much fun staring at the empty fireplace.” “But no”? “They were having too much fun”? This is the voice of a sarcastic child, and a self-justifying and unimaginative one at that, someone who imagines himself to be the hero of his own petty tragedy.
There are other points in this story when the self-pity becomes almost too much to bear and transmutes into something deeply bitter, as when he recounts a family dinner when his father “got to the table first and ate all the meat and left me a pile of empty bones to pick at, to sustain myself with slivers of fat and gristle.”
Nonetheless, if this is what happened, it’s what happened, and Burroughs, like any memoirist, has the right and the duty to tell his story as he sees fit. And, it could be added, bitterness and self-pity, though for good reason not held in high repute, are legitimate emotions that all of us feel at one time or another, and thus fitting subjects for literature.
Does some of A Wolf at the Table seem a little exaggerated and excessively subjective? Sure. But when I was 11-years-old, I was old enough to intuit that my gassy old uncle Izzy hadn’t really been in the CIA, as he’d claimed. Similarly, I’ve encountered certain memoirs that I suspected from the beginning were fundamentally false. A Wolf at the Table doesn’t strike me that way.
What people sometimes forget is that novels can confabulate, too, in those passages in which the external world or historical events are represented as being real when, in fact, they are not. And so too can our friends, as they tell us self-dramatizing stories about their lives. Most of us, I believe, can distinguish the real from the fake; we don’t stop having conversations with our friends when we suspect they’re exaggerating, nor do we stop reading memoirs or novels if the narrative seems at times far-fetched. We learn, instead, to sniff out what is genuine and what is not.
This memoir seems to me a genuine accounting of the author’s past and his memories of it. More to the point, here and there it nearly matches in lumens of vividness our present sunlit instant, as in the ballerina image, or the way in which Burroughs describes his long-ago horror when he realized that all along he had been inadvertently pronouncing the word “Dad” as “Dead”.
There are a few moments of ugly and undigested hatred in Burroughs’ memoir, to be sure. But for every passage where we are left chewing, in effect, on “shreds of fat and gristle”, there are a dozen other passages that are, if not necessarily sustaining or enriching, at least satisfying examples of the art of the professional writer and rememberer.