Noted: A dark view of memoir

In a withering New Yorker review this week (November 29’s issue) of George W. Bush’s Decision Points, billed as a memoir, George Packer says, “Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages are not self-serving.” But then “every memoir is a tissue of omission and evasion,” he opines.

Incidentally, Packer calls Bush’s book sententious: “1. abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims: a sententious book. 2. given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous,” according to dictionary.com. Interesting how close sententious is to tendentious, which also might fit: “having or showing a definite tendency, bias, or purpose: a tendentious novel.”

Packer goes on to eviscerate Bush and his Decision Points, without returning to his throwaway line about the genre in which it claims membership. Having read more than a few self-critical memoirs lately—Mary Karr’s Lit, Darin Strauss’s Half a Life, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army spring to mind—his view seems dated or ignorant to me, the statement of someone who has read politicians’ “memoirs” (which fit better their historical designation, autobiography) but is unaware of the real work that’s been done during memoir’s renaissance.

Then again, I wonder if Packer’s imperious judgment is true in the larger sense, that is, in the sense that people themselves are tissues of “omission and evasion.” Are we? If so, then memoir is bound to reflect that. Maybe it’s a matter of how kindly or cruelly one views people. We’re made of varied tissues wound together, I’d say, flawed by nature but straining to be better. Pride seems to be the issue of this tissue: are we able to master it, or at least fight it to a standstill? Humility and clarity, in art and in life, can result.

In Bush’s case, the irony is that his fabled resurrection, in early middle age, as a humble believer seems merely to have provided cover and fuel for his angry pride. I’ll grant that he thinks he changed, submitted to God, at last found clarity—but he could have used a hell of a lot more self-doubt. The result of his obtuse egotism has emptied numberless Kleenex boxes in America, not to mention our treasury, and has littered Iraq with countless more dead and maimed. He made our world so much worse, then wrote about it, boastful and proud.

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4 Comments

Filed under honesty, memoir, NOTED, politics

4 responses to “Noted: A dark view of memoir

  1. Just accept that Bush’s autobiography belongs in the crime section- it says nothing about the work you admire and do. So a review of it will not be relevant either. That said, memoirs are often constructing a self out of our fluid, divided and unstable selves so they must sometimes skirt over issues which may be too close, too painful or too half-known for us to accept. That is not to say that they is anything intentionally dishonest about them. It is just interesting that writing a novel or a memoir can reveal things about an author that they did not wish to share and it may be that these illuminations are the consequence of the tension between trying to bare a lot without revealing all about our darker thoughts and more troubling tensions. At least that’s my take on it!
    Best wishes,
    Jon.

  2. Richard, it never fails to amaze me that we go to the NY critics (at the Times, the New Yorker, and the NY Review) because we think they have insights about books equal to their stylistic polish and then they show an embarrassing provinciality when they comment about the psychology of literary forms. How does Packer know ANY given memoir is full of evasions or omissions? No one can know that and to make a sendentious rule out of what no one can know throws his whole critical venture into question. I like what Lyotard says about this: our age exists to de-legitimize not only the used-up forms of our so-called culture but also those who claim knowledge about contemporary art based on prior literary forms. In political terms, we’d call Packer a reactionary. In lit terms, he’s uninformed, though he makes a virtue of that ignornance. TL

  3. Tom, of course you are right. His throwaway line surely was intended as easy provocation, and got my goat. I imagine he’s only read political “memoirs,” and reviews about memoirs. Taking a potshot at memoir as a genre is akin to disparaging the novel as a literary form because you remember general bellyaching by critics.