Books

Much to Our Relief: A Memoir Published Without Fear of Embarrassment

Much to Your Chagrin
Author: Suzanne Guillette
Atria
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.

Suzanne Guillette

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image