Dispatches | April 06, 2011
A Good Memoir
There has been talk recently, here and elsewhere, about the fairness – or, more pointedly, unfairness – of memoir criticism. This is the kind of subject matter that will someday give me a heart attack, as I have strong feelings about it, and had a particular sort of upbringing. So, rather than write generally about criticism of memoirs and casual dismissals of the genre as a whole, I will avoid that subject and instead articulate why it is I recently liked one particular memoir.
No, I won’t be discussing John Knowles’s 1964 Double Vision, which I have been reading, and liking, but which is more travel book than memoir. I’m more interested at this moment in Dinah Lenney’s Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, of 2007. It concerns the murder of Lenney’s father and its effects on her family and herself, but it is perhaps more significantly about her father, and is engaged in a kind of biography at the same time that it is autobiographical.
Lenney does the essential work of establishing an appearance of familiarity, even intimacy, with her reader; and of rendering moments of heightened emotion in ways that seem absolutely right – with restraint, when necessary, without it, also when necessary. These are the kinds of things that I think of, at this point, as prerequisites for a successful memoir, though others have different enough needs, depending on what they are.
The fundamental reason why I liked this book so much, enough to declare my affection for it via computers, is that the language of it, and its basic artfulness, are not only important to its success, but are perfectly in synch with its subject matter, and its purpose. Late in her book, Lenney imagines, vividly, the sequence of events that led her father through a kidnapping to his death. This strikes me as a bold move, if only because Lenney was, of course, absent for this event, present as she was for everything else in the book. “I can’t help but wonder and obsess,” she tells us immediately before the narrated scene, and it is because of the insufficiency of that statement that the book must contain an imagined, moment-to-moment description of the murder. It is not enough to simply state her obsession; it takes a full, conjectured, brutal and heartbreaking narrative in order for it to be fully conveyed, for it to truly reach us.
It is this sort of work that makes the memoir seem important to me. Among many other things memoirists are up to, they are charting those experiences, thoughts, and mental and emotional spaces that are fundamentally worth putting into words, and they are finding ways to articulate them that surprise us, frustrate us, and, often, tell us something worth reading about ourselves and the people around us. Lenney’s book performs this beautifully. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
I’d like to take this opportunity to promote a no-budget cartoon we released yesterday, which consists of an interview with one of our interns. It features an animated rendition of her being asked by a fictional cartoon man about such things as her choice to read creative nonfiction submissions, a recent submission she liked that was not published in the magazine, and puppies. Here it is:
Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.
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