I stopped at Barnes and Noble on the Benner Pike the other day. Have you been there recently? They’ve pushed the Nook counter right up against the entrance, so you cannot get through without an encounter with three armed employees determined to sell you a Nook or two. I lied and said I had three for the house and one for the car. I slipped through as they were checking my statement against the Wikihistory of my purchases.
As a reward, I got to scan their bookshelves. With the exception of the novels by Stephen King and James Patterson and the Tolkien, the Harry Potter and the 70 or 80 editions of the trilogy about the Swedish girl who is always bumping into things, there were maybe a dozen novels on the shelves. There were 54 books with Hitler in the title, a dictionary with the ds and the ts torn out, and an L. Ron Hubbard dust jacket without the book. There was a lovely Yale University Press book on Helen Frankenthaler and the Color Field Movement on a shelf in the home improvement section, next to the classic “To Prime or not to Prime,” by Rodney Shakespeare and thirty or forty magazines featuring interviews with gang gang dance. On 14 or 15 enormous tables, however, which ran from the entrance to the children’s section at the rear, there was a truly astonishing collection of memoirs. The tables groaned under the weight of confession. I bought 50 or 60 of them to get a feel for my subject.
I’ve only read one so far. It was a heartrending, 650 page story of one man’s heroic journey from the Main Line through the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton and Wall Street to his current stressful, but oddly satisfying, task of balancing 5 houses on 4 continents, his 22 year old wife, his 44 year old mistress, his three ex-wives and an ungrateful son named Walter against his burning desire to play the Bassoon in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I don’t suppose all memoirs are like that, but it’s safe to say, I don’t get it. I can understand Henry Kissinger writing a memoir. I can imagine him describing a state dinner with Mao in the Forbidden City. But in the memoir I read, entitled “Bassoon or Bust”—by the way, hundreds of non-state dinners were painstakingly described. There was even a description of eating corned beef at a deli in Philadelphia. Who eats corned beef in a deli outside of New York City? A memoir, if rigorously done, seems a bit cowardly as it ignores the twists and turns of a good story. But I doubt the rigor, and while you might attempt to write a memoir, I believe I am actually reading fiction.
Let me try to explain, by example.
It is quite true that my cousin Marty ate dog food at my house once. That’s the stuff of memoir. But telling people, as I often do, that one May afternoon, when he was six years old, my cousin Marty ate the dog food left out in a tin dish, on the floor of the long hallway in our small apartment on Hopkinson Avenue, may very well be a mix of fact and fiction. The apartment and its hallway are real. I don’t remember the other details.
Of more consequence of course is the reason that poor cousin Marty ate the dog food in the first place. How could you avoid writing about that? Was it a cry for the attention of his mother, Helen, who was so involved with her older son Ralphie that she spent little time with Marty? Although in all fairness to my aunt, Ralphie had to be continuously watched as he had never mastered the twin concepts of “turning around or backing up.” You’d often find him stuck in some corner, whimpering and pleading for help. We were all quite proud, however, when in 1960, at the age of 9, he was declared the third dumbest teenager in America by Time magazine. My mom still has the article and a photo of Ralphie with his head stuck in a fence.
Did Marty do it to annoy his stern, domineering and frankly quite dangerous dad, The Major, a man so feared that when he died in 1989, at the age of 113, no peasant could be found brave enough to bury him? Does one take up the story there and leave the dog food in the can, so to speak. Why I wonder do the men on my Mother’s side of the family all retain their jet black hair well into their 90s, while the women are blond and fearfully pale? Why does that branch of the family prefer to sleep during the day? Why did my aunt Kate coo to all my baby cousins, “Who’s my little kiss of death.” Why do they all speak fluent Rumanian, when they claim to have emigrated from England? And more personally, is this the real reason I’ve spent my career studying the flow of blood?
Or going back to Marty, could one resist the temptation to wax poetic? With apologies to Ogden Nash, one might write:
Cousin Marty spied dog food
Tasted it and found it good,
And that is why his mother dear
Is seeing Dr. Freud this year.
You have the picture. Of course, one might even ask, as I have been tempted to do since I was a little lad, why on that fine day in May, was there dog food left out in the tin dish? Was there a water dish laid out as well? Who put the dog food out? Was it my mom or was it my dad? Perhaps it was my older brother, who had released himself from the county jail at around that time. Whoever it was, were they setting a trap? Did they suspect that little cousin Marty was a secret dog food-lover? Why set a trap? Was it just for the pleasure of telling the story of Marty and the can of dog food year after year? The joy of amazing the people congregated for the summer on the pavement outside 939 Hopkinson Avenue, with the dog food saga, again and again.
For you see, there is a related and essential issue, which revolves quite tightly around the fact that we didn’t have a dog. We’ve never had a dog.
And how, I’m forced to wonder, does this all fit in with my mother’s abysmal cooking?
I am more intrigued, however, with the possibility of telling or writing a story so real that the characters come to life. Not in the usual sense, but where they actually step out of the book. Do you remember, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” where Tom Baxter steps out of the picture? Tom Baxter is not real, however. Suppose you could create a character that becomes, in every way, real. Where, what starts as fiction, becomes in a sense a memoir— the life of, I would imagine, a woefully incomplete person, who steps out of the book just after you’ve typed “the end.” You may not even see him leave. You walk down the street one summery day to the park at the bottom of a little hill, only to find one of your favorite characters, a man of 82, staring at a child flying a kite and you realize Sam, your Sam, can’t possibly understand the child, the kite or the connection between them.
Of course, the case of a characters coming to life has happened only once that I know of. In 1964, characters walked out of a famous novel and went on to have lives outside the book. As miraculous as that seems, I don’t believe it caused much of a stir outside a circle of New York intellectuals. But, perhaps, you remember the incident?
I bring it up now, not only because I’ve been considering the question of what constitutes a memoir and how one might be written, but also because I happened on a reminder of the incident on the page opposite the Obituaries in the NY Times for Wednesday, September 31, 2008.
The heading was: Dunbar: Most likely Dead at 97. I’ll read you the entire article, as it’s reasonably short.
Harold (Harry) Dunbar was declared dead today, by a medical team at the Hershey Medical Center. He was 97. This was the 22nd time in nearly forty five years that Dunbar has been declared dead. Dr. Charles Manson, head of the Invasive Psychology Department at the center uncharacteristically quipped, “Mr. Dunbar has had more lives than Sylvester the Cat.”
Dunbar, as he was known, was long assumed to be a fictional character in Joseph Heller’s novel, “Catch 22.” The literary world was dumbfounded when Dunbar surfaced in New York City in 1964, at a party at Sardis, wearing nothing but his dog tags. Heller was heard to say, “Something Happened.” A subsequent analysis of his armed service and medical records confirmed his identity beyond a shadow of a doubt. As some might remember, the appearance of Dunbar led directly to the “Find Yossarian” movement. Buttons and tee shirts proclaiming Yossarian Lives appeared by the thousands overnight. Sadly, Yossarian was often spelled wrong. More sadly still, “Lives” was often spelled wrong as well.
People purporting to be characters in the novel appeared regularly over the next few years. Some were apparently quite entertaining, if the news reports of the day can be relied upon. A few, of course, went on to fame and fortune. As you might recall, the 2001 hit revival, “Who promoted Major Major,” originally starred the famed major himself. Quite possibly, however, this was due to the Major’s sickly but undeniable resemblance to Henry Fonda.
Dunbar spends much of his time in “Catch 22” cultivating boredom as a way of increasing his life span. It is his skill at being bored, in fact, that attracted the interest of the medical community. His skills were honed not only in the army but in his subsequent stint writing specifications for spare parts for Navy vessels. It is not well known, but true, that the longest continuously funded NIH grant is the one issued to study Dunbar. Although the detailed aims of the grant are certainly beyond the scope of this brief article, it is clear that the fundamental aim was to determine whether or not Dunbar was dead. The NIH study has spawned hundreds of publications, annual international conferences and “boredom studies” minors in most medical schools and in philosophy and comparative literature departments across the country and the world. Although Comparative Literature would seem an odd discipline by which to study boredom, Dr. Scott Joplin, Head of the Comparative Literature Department at Eastern, South Tennessee State exclaimed “well have you tried to read anything by Jose Saramago lately. Whew.”
Dunbar’s widow, the former nurse Duckett, when informed of his possible death, reportedly muttered, “well maybe.” It is common knowledge that Mrs. Dunbar remarried twelve times, only to have each of the marriages annulled. The medical team involved with the case has announced their intention to have the body interred in about 6 months. Mr. Dunbar has had the disturbing habit of yawning loudly at his funerals. In 1994, he apparently said, “Not just yet,” as his coffin was, being closed.
Dr. Manson wants to make it absolutely clear through this article that no member of the Chief White Halfoat clan will be allowed to attend the funeral. This is an attempt to avoid the sort of furor that disrupted the burial in 1998, when the Chief’s son and eight oil companies arrived at the funeral simultaneously. Some of you may recall the subsequent Republican effort to encourage cemetery oil drilling, through the “Cemetery Oil Rich Pre- Selected Exploration Act: A Critical National Defense Initiative”, which passed the house and the senate, only to be vetoed at the last moment by President Clinton. There is a school of thought that contends that this veto sufficiently weakened Clinton to allow an impeachment attempt.
Dr. Manson and his team, however, are most concerned that a Dunbar in his coffin would be, so to speak, a Dunbar in his element and are busy reviewing procedures to monitor the body. Professor Manson states, “The NIH grant will undoubtedly continue, as essentially nothing has changed.”