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The Semiautobiographers

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1.

In a 2010 interview, the novelist and blogger Kate Zambreno explained the genesis of her blog,  Frances Farmer Is My Sister, where she often posts responses to her reading, as a reaction to the “deadening objectivity” of the third-person critical voice. She wanted, she said, “to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading.” Begun in 2009, the blog eventually led to her just-published book Heroines, in which Zambreno considers the lives of women modernist writers in terms of her own life and vice versa. In the first  post on her blog, Zambreno said that she was inspired by Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto (2008). Bellamy had decried the “oppressiveness” of the neatly constructed essay, lodging an appeal for chaotic, disorderly writing. Bellamy’s slim book is itself a reading of and reaction to Eileen Myles’s essay “Everyday Barf,” in which Myles describes a boat ride that causes her fellow passengers to get seasick. In a feat of positive thinking, Myles is inspired by the puke, and writes a letter to her mother in a projectile rush. The essay is similarly uninhibited, its argument carried out by association and implication. Spontaneous writing, Myles suggests, is the writing that is most alive. And so, with Bellamy and Myles as her disheveled models, Zambreno “wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.”

A phalanx of recent books by women — among them Zambreno, Bellamy, and Myles — operate by a similar principle of messiness, refusing old-fashioned plot structures and paying special attention to the unruly sexual lives of their characters. Eileen Myles’s Inferno (2010) chronicles the early development of a young poet named Eileen and her coming-of-age as a poet and as a lesbian. In The Buddhist (2011), Bellamy describes getting over a lover, a man she’s nicknamed by his spiritual orientation for purposes of blogging about him; through blogging, she emancipates herself from his thrall. Zambreno’s Green Girl (2011) uses intimate, impressionistic vignettes to fathom the oddly depthless pools of its heroine’s mind. This year, Sheila  Heti’s How Should a Person Be? follows the trials of a blocked writer named Sheila, especially the ups and downs of her friendship with the painter Margaux (in life, Margaux Williamson). Heti’s much-discussed “novel from life” draws on audio recordings she made of friends, and the narrative is punctuated by transcriptions of these conversations and reproductions of email exchanges. Heti has acknowledged her debt to Chris Kraus, who assembled I Love Dick (1997) by a similar method. The narrator of I Love Dick — Kraus herself, more or less — is obsessed with a man named Dick, and Kraus tracks the elaborate, aphrodisiac game that she and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, play as they try to lure Dick into Chris’s life. Much of the book is a record of Chris’s communication with Dick and of Chris and Sylvère’s communication with each other. These passages capture the erotic buzz sparked by Dick’s (reluctant) arrival upon the scene of the marriage and transform Kraus’s desire for him into art.

All of these writers — the new semiautobiographers, you might call them —  reject privacy and propriety for openness and provocation. In their novels-from-life they aim for a synthesis of the personal and the intellectual on the one hand, and the fictional and the nonfictional on the other. They display a skepticism about plot, an interest in intellectual work, and, in their feminist determination to confer full aesthetic legitimacy on experience historically treated as marginal, a sense of political purpose. They are self-conscious about the act of writing and often make subjects of their toil, ambition, and doubt. The most recent of their books also seem influenced by, and in the cases of Zambreno and Bellamy, fashioned from, blog posts, the ideal literary forum for a self-consciously messy performance. Never edited by an alien hand, totally under the control of the writer, the blog post refuses to be anything but what it wants to be. It will not subject itself to “some highly toned artificial neat form,” to quote Zambreno. The (ostensibly) vomiting or blog-like narrative will make the mistakes it makes; it will be as clear or unclear as the writer pleases. Most important, it will read as it was first written. The amount of time that passes between the writing and the posting is between the writer and herself, but if she wishes, there need be none at all.

Zambreno has proposed, on her blog, two categories of writing: the anorexic and the bulimic. The cleverness of the distinction is apparent in the way that all writing instantly sorts itself into one group or the other: Whitman is a bulimic, Dickinson an anorexic. The classification is usefully descriptive rather than evaluative (though Zambreno notes wryly that her more “anorexic” writing has been easier to publish). But she has been explicit about what she considers the political value of the bulimic style and spoken out against the self-restraint of “good writing”: Good writing is “hegemonic and boring” because it insists on “behaving.”

This distinction between the raw and the cooked is of course an old one. In 1939 Phillip Rahv, with his carelessly racist categories of “redskin” and “paleface,” attempted to draw an analogous contrast, which for Rahv was between energy and intellect, the American West and East, the prairie and the drawing room. Rahv’s objects of comparison were always white men: Twain versus Melville, Whitman versus James. Where on this spectrum would women be positioned? Saul Bellow inadvertently provides one possibility: “Females were naturally more prone to grossness,” Mr. Sammler remarks in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. “They had more smells, needed more washing, clipping, binding, pruning, grooming, perfuming, and training.” Women writers were excluded from the ranks of literature that mattered, while woman themselves were characterized as excessive, disorderly creatures. The women Mr. Sammler is describing are young activists, and, it turns out, Mr. Sammler’s sexism doesn’t preclude some insight into what they’re about.  Their unkempt appearance is on purpose: They’ve “resolved to stink together in defiance of a corrupt tradition built on neurosis and falsehood.”

Bellow’s retrograde protagonist helps illustrate why a political connotation often attaches to the two poles, why the unruly “bulimic” story earns the tag of radical and the controlled one the tag of conservative. For women, it is out of a need to defy a corrupt tradition. What does it mean, then, to “stink together”? The logic is at once fuzzy and quite obvious: A sentence that doesn’t follow grammatical rules, a narrator that changes voices, a narrative that comes to an abrupt end all disrupt our expectations of how things “should” behave — and the formal misbehavior insinuates political rebellion.

The return of this scheme of classifications raises important questions for our literary moment: Which has the greater claim to liveliness, reality, truth? The “disorderly” narrative or the “highly toned artificial” one? Are the well-wrought and the truthful opposites, or can they be allies? And is apparent disorderliness (the escape from others’ narratives into one’s own unnarratable truth) as politically or personally liberatory as it claims to be?

 

2.

Although it is easy to find antecedents for the raw or bulimic style in American prose — say, in the Beats or Henry Miller — the clearest inspiration for contemporary semiautobiography lies in the New Narrative movement, a loose association of writers that originated in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Affiliates of New Narrative include Kraus, Myles, and Bellamy, as well as Robert Glück, Dennis Cooper, Kevin Killian, and Kathy Acker. In its formative days the group was interested in (but also resistant to) the Language poets as well as influenced by European theory. Many of its members are gay. As Glück tells it, the writers of New Narrative wanted to bridge the gap between communicating the raw experience of being gay and their abstract desire to be “theory-based writers.” The effort posed certain risks. Would the work be too avant-garde for ordinary gay readers who, like everyone else, were raised on middlebrow fiction and wanted to see their experience reflected back to them? At the same time, did it have “too much sex and ‘voice’ for a literary audience?” These questions rose out of a deeper question: “How to convey urgent social meanings while opening or subverting the possibilities of meaning itself?” The old familiar way of telling stories had been oppressive to these writers — but that was itself a story.

TNI Vol. 10: The Gossip Issue is available now – subscribe for $2The task was to change the way narrative worked. The New Narrativists didn’t want to throw narrative out (they were decidedly not Language poets), but they did want make it serve their own purposes. Fictional narrative as it had been handed down to them tended to impose a specious unity on subjective experience. The form of the novel, so often organized around heterosexual marriage, obviously wasn’t sufficient to a life that had little use for such a partnership, and a literary style that represented experience as consistent in its tone and point of view was useless if you felt experience to be otherwise. Glück again: “I wanted to write with a total continuity and total disjunction since I experienced the world (and myself) as continuous and infinitely divided. That was my ambition for writing. Why should a work of literature be organized by one pattern of engagement?” In their attempts to make narrative more closely adhere to their lived experience, these writers embraced the fragmentary, the pastichey, the disjunctively conversational. They treated sex directly (especially transgressive sex), and they mixed the high abstraction of the theorists they were reading (Lukács, Benjamin, Barthes, Althusser, Foucault) with the gossipy, hyper-personal details of their own lives and those of their friends. In this way, they began smudging the line, never too cleanly demarcated in the first place, between fiction and nonfiction. In a sense, their self-investigations resembled psychoanalysis, which also values confession and tries to make sense of a person in terms of sexuality. But the ideology bore more resemblance to Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-Freudian philosophy, which rejected the unitary ego of standard psychoanalysis and saw desire — fluid and fissiparous — as inherently revolutionary.

Sex was central — especially rowdy, public, uncategorizable, sometimes violent sex. Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker are possibly the two best-known exponents of New Narrative (though, being more famous, they are less likely to be thought of in terms of their association with it). Frequently tagged as a horror writer, Cooper wrote about young boys, and the sex in his books was inseparable from the violence. His George Miles Cycle — Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), Try (1994) Guide (1997), and Period (2000) — based on Cooper’s real-life friend and muse and almost-lover, was designed to reflect the brutality of its contents, so that over the course of the series the novel’s form would be “gradually dismembered to nothing.” Acker used cut-up techniques and borrowed freely from other writers. In her Don Quixote, she grafted her own pronoun to Cervantes’s novel. The collaged letters, pornographic drawings, and multiple voices of her Blood and Guts in High School (1984) tell of a girl in love with her father, who sells his own daughter into sexual slavery. Stories such as these resembled the “schizoanalysis” of Deleuze and Guattari, in which life yielded increasingly heterogeneous interpretations, not some singular reductive theory. Blood and Guts in High School, some critics suggested, was hacking the Oedipal myth into pieces. Freudianism had been a theory about repression; the implication of New Narrative was that any overarching theory was itself repressive.

 

3.

Though she has no obvious personal or even aesthetic ties to New Narrative, comic or graphic artist Alison Bechdel, whose memoir Are You My Mother? came out earlier this year, has much in common with writers like Myles and Kraus. Bechdel has spent decades working on the literary periphery, documenting the lives of lesbians, and her new memoir describes her relationship with her mother, especially as it developed over the course of Bechdel’s writing her previous book, Fun Home, about her father. Like the writers of New Narrative, in other words, she writes about her own life and about writing: At one point, her mother observes, to Bechdel’s delight, “It’s a metabook!” She also folds other texts into her own, using Woolf and Winnicott as inroads into her own history. She treats sex and the body in matter-of-fact detail. Above all, Bechdel, like the writers already named, is trying to arrive at a form through which to make sense of her experience as a woman, a sexual being, and an artist.

Unlike the New Narrativists and their heirs, of course, Bechdel’s books are graphic, pictorial. She studied studio art and art history in college, and her career began in 1983 with Dykes to Watch Out For, serialized nationally in alternative newspapers. At 30 she quit her day job. Fun Home, which took seven years to write, came out in 2006 to a blaze of attention that dwarfed the slow burn of appreciation her comics had earned her, and two years later she ceased DTWOF, in part to work on Are You My Mother? Bechdel used her characters in DTWOF as mouthpieces to comment on events in the world, making the comics politically explicit in a way that her books are not. Her early intention was to show that lesbians were “regular people” reflecting intelligently on their lives. But DTWOF was, as Bechdel admits, a kind of soap opera, and she came to chafe against the limits of the comic-strip form. In the longer memoirs she had the room to write more ornately and the license to take on more serious subjects. The drawings, always clean in their lines, grew even tighter, and the episodic comedy of the comic strip gave way to the interrogative, recursive quality of a novel of ideas.

But Bechdel differs from the New Narrativists in a subtler and more fundamental respect than the illustrations. Where the other books feel raw, loose, even jagged, Are You My Mother? feels digested, finished, wrought — both structurally and on the level of the sentence.

Early frames of Are You My Mother? show Bechdel driving a car, rehearsing how to tell her mother about the “dad” book. “This story begins when I begin to tell another story” — but it could also begin elsewhere. It could start, she says, when she came out to her mother — or even earlier, when she told her mother about her first period. The “real problem,” it turns out, is that the story “has no beginning”: All of life is just a “dizzying, infinite regress.” And if you can commence the telling anywhere, you also never know when to stop: “Another difficulty is the fact that the story of my mother and me is unfolding even as I write it.” As her mother tells her, “You have too many strands!” Life, narratively speaking, is a mess. But if the bulimics respond to the mess by being equally messy, Bechdel — anorexically, Zambreno might say — makes a strenuous, ascetic attempt at order. Are You My Mother? is immersed in the chaos of daily life, as these other books are, but it imposes a rare coherence on personal experience.

Bechdel manages the competing strands of her life in part through her drawings, which help her communicate theoretical ideas narratively. In one example, she sandwiches a picture of herself reading in bed with written text lifted from the psychoanalytic classic The Drama of the Gifted Child. It is through this book that she encounters the theories of the psychoanalyst Winnicott, whom she at first assumed was a woman. We learn about her brief confusion about (Donald) Winnicott’s gender via thought bubbles, at the same time that we witness, via the drawings, a moment of tension between Alison and her girlfriend. The girlfriend wants to have sex; Alison wants to keep reading. Because one strand (the relationship tension) is drawn, and the other (the thoughts about psychoanalytic theory) is written, these things can be followed simultaneously. Bechdel favors this technique of talking about one thing while showing something else and often uses it to illustrate a concept or idea.

Characteristically, the scene in the bedroom is complex. Winnicott makes her think, punningly, of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Bechdel cuts to a drawing of Christopher Robin dragging Pooh down some stairs. The text, meanwhile, explains Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object: “It occupies a ‘territory between the subjective and the objective. It’s not ‘me,’ but not ‘not-me,’ either.” The drawings animate the abstract explanation. Through a few frames, we grasp something that, written, might take paragraphs to explain. And the technique mimics consciousness in a special way. As we go about doing things — putting on pajamas, getting in to bed — so are we also thinking things. The distinction between the wordless doing and the linguistic thinking, so perfectly marked by a division between what is drawn and what is written, is not reproducible in ordinary literature, where everything is pressed through the sieve of language. The ability to layer doing and thinking is a feature of all comics, but Bechdel is unique for the extent to which she places the technique in service of explaining abstraction, for the often great distance between the “action” and the words, and for the number of threads she manipulates at once.

 

4.

The Russian formalists separated fabula — the material of the story, chronologically “as it happened” — from sjuzet, the order in which the narrative presents it. The fabula-sjuzet split has been criticized for apparently valuing sjuzet over fabula: that is, for subordinating the chronological events to the reordered narrative. (It has also been pointed out that the strict division doesn’t account for the way the telling affects or even effaces the “original” events.) A blog doesn’t necessarily tell the story of a life in a strictly chronological way; it may not tell a story at all. But there is a way in which the blog, by its nature, seems to critique retrospective narrative, or to critique the structuring that narrative implies, by valuing a sort of natural order of thought. Whether or not a blog tells a story in chronological order, it will present the story as it occurred to the writer. This is in part a function of the speed of its composition and the immediacy of its publication — and the legatees of New Narrative, favoring a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness style, have often also seemed to prize spontaneous fabula over ordered sjuzet. In Are You My Mother?, by contrast, sjuzet swallows fabula. It’s difficult to say what the chronological story is or keep track of it when reading. Time is plaited, knotted; so are the book’s ideas. This manipulation makes it easier and more pleasurable to trace the arc of the account, not less. Of Bechdel’s many strands, none appears to hang loose.

Peter Brooks observes in Reading for the Plot that beginnings are made meaningful by the existence of an end: It is what happens later that invests the early moment with significance. Even in the innocuous first sentences of a story, the narrator appears to have a sense of portent that a real person, not knowing the end of her own story, rarely has. A friend of mine once said about another friend’s book that it would have been a very good memoir if she’d only waited a few years; he meant that if she’d waited for some sort of end she would know the meaning of what had happened to her and wouldn’t be narrating from the middle of the story, blind to its patterns. Is my friend’s judgment old-fashioned, or even sexist? The revolutionary gesture of Kraus, Myles, et al. is to write from within the moment of their experience — to say, proudly, that what they know in that moment is enough.

Because of the finished quality of Bechdel’s book, it is tempting to assume that she had a certain amount of time to reflect, that this high degree of finish is a result of insight arrived at over time, more insight and time perhaps than the New Narrativists give themselves. But it’s always impossible to measure how much art has gone into a given artistic effect. “I love giving the impression of the unmediated,” Bellamy writes in The Buddhist. At another point, she describes the effort that has gone into a short piece she’s written about her former lover, which becomes the opening of the book: “The ‘now’ takes place within a few minutes, but the content extends and swirls way out … It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how personal or vulnerable my subject matter, at a certain point in writing it all boils down to formal concerns.” Bellamy may craft her work no less than Bechdel; Bechdel may write no more spontaneously than Bellamy. It may not matter how easily or arduously something was written: It can take a long time to give an impression of haste.

Still, there is a relation between the composition and the character of a book that can’t be denied. The birth of a book as a blog must encourage some excess, some messiness; the graphic nature of Bechdel’s memoir must have enforced a certain economy, caution, and precision. In fact Bechdel reports that her first book took seven years; her second one took six. Bechdel’s process involves multiple passes, in which she builds a page from the skeletal words, to a series of sketches, to the final ink. In her aspirations to the lifelike, she bases her drawings on photographs, posing her own body in the positions that her characters will take. For a scene in Fun Home in which she watches fireworks as a teenager with her father, in order to precisely reproduce the skyline, she tracked down the exact rooftop that she and her father had originally stood on.

But more important for Bechdel’s refined approach to narration than lengthy drawings is her use of psychoanalysis. She relies heavily on psychoanalytic theories for making sense of her life, and describes her experience of  being analyzed with striking earnestness. She gives an illustrated guide to her shrinks that includes their names and portraits and the dates of her work with them. We witness her sessions. We learn about her dreams. Each chapter, in fact, opens with a dream, analyzed as the chapter progresses. We have access both to the dream and the dream’s interpretation, the life and the life’s interpretation. Interpretation, of course, is no less than the making of narratives, and for all Bechdel’s chronological doubling back, her laments about “infinite regress” — in other words, for all her complexity — she believes in a big, simplifying narrative about her life, an argument about the meaning of what has happened to her and how she has come to be who she is.

TNI Vol. 10: The Gossip Issue is available now – subscribe for $2In her case, the story goes something like this: Bechdel’s mother was withholding, physically and emotionally. She was reluctant to accept her daughter’s sexuality, and incapable of fully seeing or hearing her. (Much space is devoted to their one-sided telephone conversations.) The mother is also intelligent, expressive, and driven. By working as an artist herself — Bechdel’s mother is both a writer and an actor — and by fostering artistic talents in her daughter, she offered Bechdel a means of handling the very problems her tricky version of love had created. This argument concludes in the book’s moving final pages, which illustrate an early game played by mother and daughter. When a small Alison refused to get up off the floor, her mother, rather than scolding her, would ask if she was crippled: did she need a brace? did she need a cane? Alison usually did. The szujet is especially obvious here: the end of the story is its beginning. And Bechdel has clearly learned her mother’s lesson: something invented — an imaginary brace, a narrative cane — can express something real.

It was part of the radicalism of psychoanalysis to suggest that the raw stuff of free association was valuable. But psychoanalysis also teaches that free association isn’t useful without interpretation. Slips of the tongue, dreams, blurted comments, half-thoughts — they don’t mean on their own. They achieve meaning in relations of causality and temporality; they have meaning inside of stories and arguments. What gives form to the book is a system of patterns and associations, the resonance between Woolf’s and Winnicott’s and Bechdel’s lives, the vibration between dream and event and historical event. Of course the risk of any interpretation is that it will be wrong. We can’t say that the story that Bechdel tells is exactly right — and indeed the “mom” book records Bechdel’s mother dissenting from the conclusions of the “dad” book. Even Bechdel is skeptical of her own judgments. In fact by narrating the process of making a narrative, the book admits that every drawing was preceded by a sketch, and that every sketch could have been of a different subject. Bechdel’s giddy theorizing will never be quite finished; the pattern will never be quite whole. Nevertheless, she insists on the pattern’s reality.

An old charge against narrative is that storytelling, because it manipulates events, distorts basic truths, and an old charge against psychoanalysis is that its explanations, at once over-elaborate and overly simplified, just don’t get us right. The power of the raw, disorderly novel/memoir is its claim to unvarnished reality. First thought, best thought, was Allen Ginsberg’s maxim. First thought, truest thought, the semiautobiographers seem to announce. But psychoanalysis counters with the troubling suggestion that reality is not so easily described, so immediately discovered as that. It declares psychic truths to be neither fixed nor finally accessible, while demanding a long and careful search for them even so. Psychoanalytic storytelling may necessarily be endless, its horizon defined by overlapping waves of insight. Yet the patient’s original, spontaneous narrative, it claims, is faulty; the task of analysis is to help separate genuine insight from habitual perception, to distinguish the essential from the incidental.

Bechdel holds to an idea of art that is basically psychoanalytic in nature. Against the grain of the moment, she vindicates the wrought, the refined, the symbolic. Does this make her a conservative artist? Certainly she is hardly avant-garde: She works in a pop form and appeals to a mass audience. She makes rarefied concepts digestible. And yet, absorbing the lessons of the postmodern schizophrenic narrative, she has arrived at a hybridized style that is as formally inventive, metafictional, and aware of its own textuality as any New Narrativist might hope.

A cursory look at our movies and books, our comics, our movies based on comics, demonstrates that we’re more in love with the usual narrative satisfactions than ever before: the readerly and writerly customs of a middlebrow (but by no means a psychoanalytic) culture. Against these obedient arcs, a little narrative graffiti is more than welcome. New Narrative and its daughters refuse the old dictate that women be demure and follow the rules, especially the constraints of “good taste” that can act as an obstacle to the kinds of stories women have to tell. In elevating a kind of “bad” writing, these artists shrug off an (implicitly masculine) standard or grammar of narration. And yet when our main mode of communication today is the bad writing of the dashed-off email, and when sex and gossip have become as quick a route to fame as any, how avant-garde is it to incorporate an email into a novel? The idea that certain subjects or styles are forbidden is mostly, these days, a useful pretence, affording the messy narrative the appearance but not often the reality of brave honesty, and obviating the costlier truths got by synthesis, interpretation, reflection, revision.

New Narrative was surely right to suggest that one way to falsify experience is to cook it in the wrong way, or overcook it, telling the reader what to think by thinking for her, robbing her of the chance to participate in or even to reject the process of meaning-making. But New Narrative’s inheritors invoke a repressive culture that no longer really exists, traded in for one that gorges on sex scenes and has no use for privacy. If we are aware that pre-given narrative and formal structures can conceal the truth of our experience, so ought we to be aware of the danger of never trying too hard to figure ourselves out. As Bechdel helps us see, the attempt to order experience needn’t represent an acquiescence to some oppressive authority. It can also be a — perhaps our best — chance at liberation.

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