Monthly Archives: April 2011

Phillip Lopate on literary nonfiction

An esteemed essayist and theorist, the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate was interviewed in 2008 by Lania Knight for Poets & Writers Magazine, online version. I just stumbled across it, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Some excerpts:

Creative nonfiction is somewhat distortedly being characterized as nonfiction that reads like fiction. Why can’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Why does it have to tart itself up and be something else? I make no apologies for the essay form, for the memoir form, or for any kind of literary nonfiction. These are genres that have been around for a long time, and we don’t have to apologize for them, or act like they’re new fads when they’re not. A colleague pointed out that James Frey, in his defense, said memoir is a new genre. He said there aren’t as many rules as there were when Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing fiction. This is total nonsense because, in fact, Hemingway and Fitzgerald both wrote nonfiction as well. Frey showed his ignorance. Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life.

There’s a kind of bestseller that’s being written now, true crime nonfiction, which is essentially told through scenes. Perhaps this goes back to Capote’s In Cold Blood, or Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, but the idea is to write a kind of narrative that makes you feel like you’re watching television, so it’s very close to a screen play. That’s okay, but I don’t see any reason to encourage graduate MFA nonfiction students all to write that way.

I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind. I’ll read an essayist, like E. B. White, who may write about the death of a pig one time, and racial segregation another time. Virginia Woolf may write about going on a walk to find a pencil, which seems like a very trivial subject, or about World War I, or a woman’s need for a room of her own. She has such a fascinating mind that I’m going to follow her, whatever she wants to write about. One of the ploys of the great personal essayists is to take a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then bring interest to it.

I have no desire to pick a fight with [immersion journalist Lee] Gutkind. I’m arguing more for reflective nonfiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.

There is a lot of great fiction that is largely reflective. Proust, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Sebald, Conrad, Samuel Beckett, on to the post-modernist people like David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker. It’s not true that fiction is always showing and not telling. That’s a distortion, a very narrow way of looking at fiction.

One objection you could make to my prescription is that it’s rather snobbish. I’m interested in intelligence and interesting minds. You could finesse a certain amount of technique, scenes, and dialogue, but it’s hard to finesse having or not having an interesting mind. I try to read writers who are better than I am, or who have deeper minds than I do because I need to learn.

Anybody who works intensively with autobiographical nonfiction realizes fairly early on that they’re going to have to make a construct, you might say a dummy. The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are. This kind of writing posits a more coherent self, which is a kind of achievement—that your self has coalesced into something, however limited, more than the rest of the culture wants to allow.

The most advanced literary theory talks about the dissolution of the self and asks if there is really an author. In literary nonfiction, we cling to an old-fashioned, humanistic idea that each person is an individual, each individual has a kind of self, and that that self is cohesive. . . .

Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.” The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-personal, honesty, NOTED, scene, teaching, education

Thoughts at Eastertime, too

Photo of our sheep flock by Claire Gilbert.

This is my second, and final, excerpt from my memoir’s Epilogue. At this point, after the death of our farm helper, Sam, we’ve sold the sheep flock we tended for a decade. My mother has just died. We’re getting ready to list our farm for sale. We’ve been attending a country church for almost a year, and after thirteen years in Appalachian Ohio we feel at last at home as we prepare to leave.

February 15, 2009. “Have you heard the expression ‘Love your neighbor?’ ” Kathy asked the children of Alexander Presbyterian Church. “There was a very special man who had a television show about neighbors that ran for more than thirty years. Have you ever heard of Mister Rogers?”

The children, all four of them—it was an old congregation—shook their heads solemnly No. Fred Rogers had been dead for as long as most of them had been alive, and his reruns hadn’t reached Albany, Ohio. Kathy was prepared for this. She held up a photograph of him from the pulpit.

“Let me read you something that Mister Rogers wrote late in his life,” she continued. “He said, ‘The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my ‘neighbor’ (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person . . . as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud . . . the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.’

“Mister Rogers is saying that everyone is our neighbor—whoever we are with at the moment is our neighbor. And we should love all those we are with and we should appreciate them for who they are. And God is the one who appreciates all of us for who we are. We should understand that we are all God’s neighbors.”

A woman led the children away, and Kathy turned her attention to us. “I have been thinking about neighbors a good deal as we prepare for another move to a completely different place, to new jobs, to another house, to another community,” she said. “There are a few big differences from our last move. This time we won’t be moving to a farm; we’ll be living in town with neighbors all around us, and we’re not used to that.

“I’m a little concerned that folks will be monitoring our lawn, and we’re accustomed to turning the sheep out when the lawn needs some trimming. And this time our children won’t be moving with us. So for the first time we won’t be moving as a family. And we’ll be living on the fringes of a large city.”

Joann, a pillar of the church, had asked Kathy to speak when Pastor Bob was away. We’d thought Kathy wouldn’t be recognized in a country church on the edge of Albany, but soon everyone had known who she was. The university’s provost was often named, and pictured, in Athens’ newspapers. And the latest news is that she’s been hired as president of a small Methodist-affiliated Ohio college. Otterbein was founded by members of the United Brethren in Christ Church, who were active conductors in Ohio’s Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War and who admitted women on an equal basis with men from the school’s start, in 1847.

Kathy based her sermon on the story, in the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus’ encounter with a “teacher of the law” who has asked him to name the most important commandment. Jesus thunders:

“The most important one is this: ‘Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second most important commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment more important than these two.”

“The connection,” Kathy said, “between loving God and loving your neighbor is not simply that they are the most important commandments but rather that one follows from the other. We need to find ways to do both during these difficult times. And as Richard and I find ourselves moving on to a new life in a new place, we will take these lessons with us.

“We will remember, also, that as members of a church community we are responsible to look out for one another and keep everyone informed about those in need of prayer and assistance as you all do each week. It’s important to take the time to share our own personal trials and tribulations and turn to our neighbors for support and love. We will remember what it feels like to be members of a caring community in which you accept everyone for who they are.”

Her words resonated against the backdrop of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a severe economic recession. The congregation looked up at her, and afterward they shook her hand. She was a natural in the pulpit, but their attention was humbling. It wasn’t just about her role, her place in a secular hierarchy, the esteem in which the world held her. I’m sure they sensed her goodness.

#

May 5, 2009. I’ve never asked Kathy what she thinks about God. Maybe what she’s found for us, a voluntary community of people trying to be good, is enough. Maybe that is God. Her words implied as much. My notion wouldn’t wash with many people, believers and unbelievers alike. Sam’s minister, for one, would set me straight—again—right quick. I am, I know, an a la carte Christian. Yet, having always spurned dogma, I now struggle for my own definitions. Pastor Bob surely would smile at this, my vanity.

The winter of Sam’s death, trying to grasp why I had been (and am still so often) anxious and angry—and hoping at last to heal—I’d studied a popular psychology textbook. I read there are no healthy Americans, that everyone is distorted from growing up in sick families in a toxic society. The book’s viewpoint seemed tautological: if everyone’s damaged, isn’t that normal? Does everyone truly need therapy? Surely I’d needed it myself, as a disturbed child, as a depressed adolescent. But even if this diagnosis of universal woundedness is valid, it hadn’t helped me live better. Or given me any peace. It had only deepened my pain.

Having read Buddhist philosophy off and on for fifteen years, starting back in Indiana, lately I’ve been meditating with Athens’ newest clergywoman, a Zen priest, her head shaved as bald as mine. “I will end my suffering,” she told me. This pain, she’d said, was anger. I admire her, and find Buddhism’s tools clear and accessible. On my new Facebook page, I’ve listed my religious affiliation as Methodist Buddhist.

Just before she got sick, Mom sent me a paperback book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, a spiritual synthesis with a Zen flavor. I would never have bought this Oprah-endorsed New Age bestseller myself—10 million copies sold!—and threw it aside on the dining room table the day it came. I returned to my recliner to grade freshman papers, and picked up a girl’s essay in which she began to discuss A New Earth. Jess was an art major, sensitive and smart, and was taken with the author’s insights into how the ethereal beauty of flowers, birds, and precious stones can awake people to their own inner essence. I lowered my La-Z-Boy with a thunk, got the book, and started reading.

A New Earth struck me as a masterpiece, and I’ve read it repeatedly in the year since Mom’s death. Its author, Eckhart Tolle—whose gentle outlook sounds a lot like Mister Rogers’s, actually—writes of the “pain-body” each human carries (baggage: familial, racial, sexual, national) and how inability to let go of it mars one’s ability to live fully in the present. He answers the question of what, in you, is irked and angered by the malodorous egos of others: your ego. He defines the ego simply: that part of human nature which “wants and fears.” The ego clings to grievances and fattens on anger; a parasite, it needs the pain-body.

Tolle believes humans are outgrowing the necessary stage of the ravening ego. With his faith in a changing global consciousness, he reinforces my innate, progressive view of history: humans are getting better, evolving. This gives me a fragile faith in some sort of higher power, on the one hand, and a faith in my own future on the other. When young I had wanted to change so badly, to become something else. I am old enough now, the years having washed over me, that, teenage fantasies of genius and outrageous success forgotten, I am what I am. I have a track record, a full resume. But if I might devote myself to passions that have survived, I can grow. I can become what I’m meant to be.

For once I crave a larger context than myself, however. Which is one reason that for the first time since I met Kathy at Ohio State, I’m reading the Bible. I read it for its poetry, I say, but poetry is distilled wisdom. And after Tolle, I’ve concluded that it is an adult’s task to define, for himself, the God he believes in—or doesn’t. Maybe then we can talk. I can’t accept that there’s a deity in the sky or a physical afterlife. Yet I believe there is something within us—a shared will we don’t yet understand—that makes us human. While I view most biblical stories as metaphors, this indwelling force, this impulse toward goodness in human history, appears real. As real as Abraham Lincoln was real before he became, also, a metaphor.

I know that Europe’s great cathedrals, after wars and Holocaust, stand empty. I sense that many people don’t believe anymore in their own species’ innate goodness, let alone in its religions. But as a species we’ve selected against brutes; we’ve nurtured goodness within us as well. Love thy neighbor; forgive trespasses. Hard tasks, but unless people try, are reminded they should try, I wonder: what’s left? It doesn’t seem viable to me that humans can count on mass disillusionment in place of spiritual disciplines. Count on our unknown, unloved neighbors to teach their children to tolerate us as we totter into their paths.

I’m favoring the New Testament: Jesus’ relentless attacks on dogma and hypocrisy thrill me. But I intuit that it’s the Old Testament that wrestles with an underlying and undying mystery. How and why did the long-suffering Jews—the Bible’s famously “stiff-necked” people—discover, some 3,000 years ago, followed by Christians and Muslims, that there’s a greater good than the narrow, prideful self? See that they must serve this good? Their submission is epitomized in the extreme allegory of Abraham, who, preparing to obey God and kill his own son, was at the last moment allowed to slaughter a ram instead.

I’ve always been wary of groups—sensitized as a weak boy against any potentially bullying entities—but I’m starting to see that I can’t shun communities without also forsaking their wisdom. On the eve of our departure, I wish we’d joined our neighbors from the start in a more open-hearted way. I wonder if our children should have gone to Albany’s schools instead of commuting with us into Athens. At the time, I’d told everyone—even myself—that we hadn’t wanted to change their schools yet again. Which was partly true, but now seems largely class bias and hypocrisy. I hadn’t wanted to sacrifice my children to a fading if not extinct democratic American ideal. And yet fully embracing humble Albany might have blessed us all.

Maybe my task, in a time when so many historic links to others are fractured, is to help heal frayed ties or to create new ones. I haven’t ever done it; I’m not sure I can. Long ago I embraced the writer’s image as outsider. But in Alexander Presbyterian Church, I see—in songs and sermons, in handshakes and psalms, in my wife’s words—what has been hidden from me in plain sight. In the face of life’s utter mystery, here is celebration and solace.

Like poetry, our fellowship and our words point only indirectly at what they seek, at what they honor—at what they embody. At what I am struggling at last to name, to call God.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, memoir, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

Thoughts on Palm Sunday

"Labor of Love" Thrift Store sign in The Plains, Ohio

Below is part of the new Epilogue of the memoir I’m writing. The book is about my and my family’s experiences living in Appalachian Ohio for thirteen years, years in which our children grew up, my wife, Kathy, rose through the ranks of a university, and I worked in book publishing, taught, and ran our sheep farm.

 Now we’re on the cusp of leaving, a bittersweet time. My mother is ill. We’ve become empty-nesters. I’ve delivered a eulogy, in a rural Baptist church, for my farm helper, Sam. Kathy is on the job market again. I’ve sold most of our sheep. After a long ex-cathedra period—after having tried four churches in town—Kathy has dragged me to a church near our farm.

April 6, 2008. Kathy elbows me in the ribs as we sit in the pew of a country church less than a mile from our house. She has a red hymnal open to the service’s first song, “Morning Has Broken.” I’d learned its words back in Indiana so I could sing it to Tom every night as a bedtime lullaby.

I look around the sanctuary. Alexander Presbyterian Church’s crown molding is in the same local style our builders had crafted for our house from the oak we’d cut at Mossy Dell. On the church’s walls are three pictures of Jesus—my instant favorite an ornate lighted box behind the pulpit that contains a portrait of him in profile, gazing gently upward. With his soulful eyes and long sandy hair, he looks just like the actor who played him in Jesus Christ Superstar.

It’s the first time we’ve set foot in Alexander Presbyterian Church, founded in 1832, though for years we’ve admired it. With its Gothic stained-glass windows, pristine white clapboards, and red tin roof, the church is a landmark beside the Appalachian Highway that runs between Cincinnati and Athens. We’d visited its graveyard once, when Tom was in elementary school—for a class geology project he was identifying stones used for markers. I’d heard the Zimmermans [our farm’s previous owners] were buried there, but it had taken time that afternoon to find them amidst several acres of tombstones.

Keith’s and Hazel’s modest tan granite gravestones stood on either side of their daughter’s, which was three times as large. We saw from the dates that Betty had died two weeks before her sixteenth birthday, in 1943. I remembered Jim telling me in the barbershop that a softball had hit her in the stomach at school, and by the next day she was dead. Keith had lived on for forty-four more years. Hazel, who was only eighteen when she’d had Betty, survived her daughter by fifty-three years before dying at eighty-six.

In front of the family’s plot loomed a large gray stone for twenty-four-year-old Max Foster Zimmerman, who must have been Keith’s younger brother, killed in France in 1944. A hard blow that must have been, the year after Betty’s death. Standing in the wiry cemetery grass, I had tried to imagine the region in wartime. Just another rural backwater, but with stories going on—love affairs and sorrow, rumors and headlines, heat and flood, church suppers and Easter egg hunts.

Twelve years ago, in 1996, just after Hazel was laid to rest, we’d first driven past the cemetery. We were on our way to Athens. We couldn’t know that we also were on our way to buy the Zimmermans’ beloved farm. We couldn’t know that, a stone’s throw from our van, another little family’s story had just ended.

The choir enters, elderly women robed in bright blue, joined by the minister. Pastor Bob is a large, silver-haired older man with a benign round face. He wears eyeglasses and a black robe; his white stole is marked with the word Joy. We sing “Morning Has Broken,” and then pass the peace.

Everyone in the church, forty-three souls (someone records this on a signboard), mills and greets each other—no turning just to those beside you. The people are friendly and welcoming to us, too. I follow their lead and make my way to Wiley, a celebrity returned from illness, who at ninety-four remains sitting, dual canes flanking his legs. When I take his gnarled small hand I notice his firm grip, his youthful face.

“This always gets out of control,” Pastor Bob marvels. A moment before, after hearing requests for prayers for sick folk called out from the pews—too many pleas to remember—he’d mildly suggested that everyone fill out the blue prayer cards in the pews.

The scripture lesson is from Acts 16 and Pastor Bob begins by saying he has no idea why he picked it, the story of Paul’s journey through the East with Timothy. “If it fits you, listen,” he says. “Otherwise take a nap. Maybe I’m just talking to myself.” It seems the scripture’s point is that Paul had wanted to open his own church, but instead was sent or called on a pilgrimage to proselytize in the sticks.

Pastor Bob’s sermon expanding on the scripture’s theme is titled “Handling Second Choices.” He tells us how as a young man he’d been preparing to leave the four small Methodist churches he was serving in southern Indiana for Duke University’s seminary. He already had a wife, a young child, and a new baby on the way. By going, however, they’d be close to his parents and brother in North Carolina. Then he got a blinding headache one afternoon as he walked into his house. The pain was so intense—otherworldly—that finally he prayed for it to be lifted. He promised he’d do anything—even not leave. His pain vanished.

“Sometimes second choices are the right choices,” he says. “The only way you’re ever going to get over being second choice is to find people who need you and help them.”

I nudge Kathy in the ribs. She glances at me and raises her eyebrows. His story is so interesting, his mellow delivery so deft, that I want him to go on, to tell us about his seminary experience in Indiana, or wherever he’d ended up. Instead he jumps way ahead. A couple years ago, he’d been eager for retirement from the Methodist church in The Plains, north of Athens. But he heard Alexander Presbyterian had been struggling along without a minister.

“This church seemed to need me,” he says. “And I needed this church.”

His boyhood dream hadn’t been to be a preacher, he confesses. “A teacher said I had a good voice. We lived in Pittsburgh and I wanted to be the announcer for the Pirates. I hope you all don’t mind that you were my second choice.” Kathy and I would notice, as our Sundays went on, that Pastor Bob always returned his rapt flock to two principles: acceptance and forgiveness. He’d speak of his forgiveness of own harsh father, a hell-fire-and-brimstone Methodist, also a minister.

We sing “Day by Day and with Each Passing Moment,” a pretty old hymn. As we leave I shake Pastor Bob’s big hand, thank him, and say, “I think the Pirates still need your help.”

“They need money,” he says, smiling.

As we walk across the gravel lot to our van Kathy says, “There were a lot of signs.” An acquaintance of ours is always seeing signs.

“Yep. And he’s good.”

“Did you notice the congregation?” she asks.

“What?”

“They really pay attention. They listened to him very carefully.”

Next: The congregation listens to Kathy.

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

Art, craft, and the elusive self

“In Schooner Valley,” a pastel by David Owen

I knew Dave Owen in another life—my Hoosier period—and since then he’s become an admired landscape painter in southern Indiana. In his thoughtful new blog post “With the Artist Added,” at David Owen Art Notes, Dave reflects on the nature of art and artists as he prepares for a show. I was struck by how much his insights apply to writers and writing.

In the first place, he isn’t wild about the three pieces he’s taking to the competition, including the landscape reproduced above. And yet:  “. . . I have realized that my paintings become neither better nor worse when a judge gives them a thumbs down or a thumbs up. They have a life of their own and are whatever they are.”

To me, “In Schooner Valley” is lovely. But I can’t see what Dave sees—and certainly not what he’d hoped to see emerge from his brushstrokes. I too have finished pieces that I feel don’t quite work. Or at least fell short of what I’d imagined. Even successful and published stories, essays, and poems are handmade things and are lumpy or lopsided in spots. And what a mess we had to make to get halfway close to our intentions. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio, a potter’s bench, or a writer’s hard drive?

After fearsome effort, the creator sees flaws. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” said Paul Valery. I believe it. Artists labor until they’re frustrated with what they have made—the work’s no longer an ego extension, far from it—and their feelings can’t be hurt by a judge or an editor. They did the best they could, got what help they could, and at some point they moved on. Not because they gave up too easily, but because whatever that object still needs is beyond their powers.

At the gallery, Dave looks at various paintings and wonders where each artist’s style comes from. Hours later he happens to read John Burroughs, the nineteenth-century nature writer, reflecting on how bees turn the nectar of flowers into honey. “Just as honey begins with the nectar that the bee finds in the flower,” Dave muses, “so a painter’s style begins with whatever sweetness the artist finds in life.”

Thus we arrive at the irreducible in art: the creator. Craft is the necessary conduit for this elusive self. We can teach craft—how to apply paint, how to put words in logical order—but we cannot teach that which paints, that which writes. At least not directly. And it’s the only thing more important in making art than craft.

Yesterday, after reading Dave’s essay, I was thinking about this as I judged some poems and essays for a little contest on campus. Most of the work was very rough from a craft perspective, yet there was such life and energy in it. One girl’s vivid essay, brimming with feeling for her handicapped brother, read like one of Gertrude Stein’s better stream-of-consciousness prose experiments. I admired it—hang the grammar. I recalled how writing theorist Peter Elbow advises writers to write as fast and as thoughtlessly as possible in their first drafts.

Elbow’s aim is to foster discovery by freeing the unguarded self from the constraints of craft before, necessarily, imposing craft. Natalie Goldberg’s and others’ freewriting approaches cleave to this. But many other successful writers use what Elbow calls “the dangerous method”—trying to polish each sentence to perfection as they go.

Self and craft need each other like the bee needs the flower and the flower needs the bee. Yet they can seem hostile to each other. Writing drafted for utter correctness may fail to express truth and beauty; writing that’s not at some stage disciplined by craft may fail to express anything at all. Working out this paradox seems central to art. I believe it’s something all artists must do in their own sweet, idiosyncratic way.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, discovery, emotion, freewriting, NOTED, working method

‘Half A Life’ memoir honored

I was surprised—but pleased—when Darin Strauss’s memoir Half A Life recently won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography. I hadn’t heard much buzz about the book. The judges called it a “brave and heartbreaking account,” placing it ahead of finalists that included Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids.

Half a Life may be the saddest book I’ve ever read.

Which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean depressing, not exactly. More like sad, and haunting, but mesmerizing. I was in awe of the book and its execution when I read it in early winter, but didn’t write anything because I just didn’t know what to say. I decided to read it again, but haven’t yet. I will, though, at least when it’s in paperback so that I can use it in a memoir readings or writing class.

Strauss was only eighteen when he was driving himself and some friends to play miniature golf; a girl from his school turned her bicycle in front of his car, his parents’ Oldsmobile. There was no way to avoid hitting her. None. She died, and he’d never be the same. The horror of this situation keeps resonating as you see Strauss try to live with it. He’d accidentally violated one of our species’ deepest taboos, taking another human life. Contemplating his plight, across 200 pages, is uncomfortable. Like watching a slow-motion wreck.

I highly recommend Half A Life, though. It is a generous gift, this book; though a work of art, not a self-help book, it might help others deal with impossible burdens. And Strauss never spares himself, pointing out, for instance, times when he shut down and felt less than he might have or tried to make himself look better in the maelstrom after the crash. But he took to heart her mother’s injunction—a curse, really—that he must now live life for her daughter, too. The parents, who said they didn’t blame him, were soon suing him for millions of dollars. The carefree under-achiever became serious, studious, anxious, sad.

The wreck made him a writer—he’s a celebrated literary novelist. But it changed him in other, deeper psychic ways. He mostly hid his shameful secret from others, though he thought about the dead girl constantly. In college, he went to the library regularly and obsessively figured out the physics of the crash to prove to himself, over and over, that he could not have avoided her. After college he tells a few girlfriends, with mixed and volatile results. Finally, he marries. And ultimately his wife insists, when he’s 36, that he come to better terms with the accident—exactly half his lifetime ago—that’s always present, always coming between them.

Half A Life, emotionally restrained and rather somber, is the result. But the wound has so forged him that there’s no way he can just will himself to get it out of his system and get happy. The accident made Strauss who he is; it is inseparable from his identity.

The book is beautifully produced by McSweeney’s. There’s a review and video interview with Strauss at The New York Times book review.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW