Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"An Alphabetical Life" by Wendy Werris

My husband believes that if you approach something without expectations, you're rarely disappointed and usually pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, with this book, I was disappointed. It's a memoir of one woman's career in the book business, from store teller to publishing rep. Things didn't start well on the first page when I saw the dialogue was going to be anything but realistic:

"Ma," I announced, "I got a job today. I'm going to work in a bookstore."...I sat down across from her and lit a cigarette of my own. "It's our favorite one!" I said happily. "PIckwick Bookshop, up on Hollywood Boulevard."

"Oh, for God's sake! I love that place. Your father's going to be so proud of you when I tell him tonight," she exclaimed.

"Well, don't go too nuts over this," I told her. "I doubt I'll stay there more than a couple of months. It's just a temporary job, Mom, until I start college."

The other thing I just couldn't adjust to was the book's lack of scope. These chapters might have resonated more if they'd been shortened and published as personal essays rather than a memoir. Instead, the author tells us random incidents that don't become cumulative in any meaningful way, in the way that a long piece of prose (fiction or not) should be. For example, the chapters that include her rape and the death of both parents contain enough tension to support an essay, but in this memoir they feel floating. It's interesting that someone who's sold books most of her life doesn't seem to understand how conflict and consistency work in a narrative.

The author mentions her affinity for psychoanalysis at one point. It definitely permeates the writing, the result of which is a glossy tone (with more than enough cliches) that doesn't unpack any of the issues it raises. From page 246:

Out of emotional necessity, I've pitched many childhood memories into the black hole of detachment. My recollections of those Friday nights with my father, however, have only become more beloved to me with the passage of time. The remain a testament to have once been loved with the depth of a bottomless well.

I should say that I never did catch the memoir bug that started going around a few years ago. The form is so hard to do well. I don't believe a successful memoir has to wow and dazzle; a humble life is worth telling, if the telling incorporates and highlights and gives meaning to the small aspects. But if it's a humble life, and the story tries to reach beyond, then it's just silly. Memoirs are always on a tightrope; they're always tow inches from boring or self-congratulatory. (Mind you, I'm cognizant that I'm publishing my personal thoughts on a blog.)

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