Daily Archives: September 5, 2012

An alphabetical memoir

Marcia Aldrich employs an unusual structure to explore a suicide.

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich. University of Georgia Press, 262 pp.

 It’s a gorgeously written, geniusly structured tale about a friend of Aldrich’s who committed suicide. I loved it.—Cheryl Strayed, in an interview

A straight-ahead chronology may seem the natural way to tell a tale. To convey experience by showing it unfold. But as many a memoirist learns—and many a novelist, for all I know—chronology is a hard mistress. Time’s weight traps the writer and bogs down his story. This happened and then this and then . . . Tempted to include too much, because it happened and was so interesting, the memoirist finds his narrative plodding. He wonders, Where in all this stuff is the story?

Marcia Aldrich, a creative writing teacher at Michigan State and former editor of Fourth Genre, avoids this in Companion to an Untold Story but takes another risk. She tells the story of a friend, his suicide, and the aftershocks by using an unconventional structure, that of an alphabetical reference book called a companion. Scenes, narrative summary, and reflection are organized in alphabetical entries. Some consist of a few words; some run a couple pages. Her first entry lays out the stark story and teaches the reader how Aldrich will proceed:

 Age at death. In obituaries, a proxy for the worth and fullness of

the life. Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the

official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six.

Brilliant and introspective, in youth a poet, Joel spent most of his working life as an underpaid substitute teacher near San Francisco. The marginal job barely supported his meager existence in a tiny apartment. A diabetic since childhood, he suffered from seizures and blackouts, even though he injected himself with insulin each morning. As he aged he developed excruciating pain from nerve degeneration. He struggled to pay for medicine and for repairs to keep his beater cars running. His clothes were threadbare. He was alone.

Aldrich becomes his companion in Companion to an Untold Story. He’d been her husband’s boyhood friend and remained his best friend. She inherited him. And she and her husband adopted him in the way that many a young couple gathers the odd person as a third wheel, a companion and witness to their abundance. Over the years, some friends fall away; but for Aldrich and her husband, Joel didn’t. He gave them their marital bed, having space himself only for a couch, and befriended their children. Yet when he left billboard-sized clues of his plan to kill himself, they missed them. He was crafty, to be sure. His cover story: paring down his life. He boldly drove cross-country, on bad tires, ferrying to them in his Ford Escort wagon the bulk of his modest worldly treasure.

Too late they entertained their unspoken fears when a box containing his last possessions came by mail, delivered more quickly than Joel had foreseen. Aldrich’s husband called, and they ascertain that Joel listened to the message on his answering machine in his empty apartment. By then he had mailed the police his suicide note and keys. Next he went in his bathroom and put a .38 revolver to his head. Aldrich feels guilty and, as a writer, compelled to make sense of what happened. How, she wonders, could she have failed to admit what she saw? When she uses the binoculars he gave her, she feels herself looking through her dead friend’s eyes.

How natural and revealing the book’s structure is—entwined glimpses of a man’s life, his violent death, and the memories Aldrich lives with. Yet how clearly imposed and partial it is. Incompleteness is one point: a complete narrative is never possible and efforts to make one are tedious. We know early that Joel scraped by as a substitute; late in the book we’re informed that in his twenties he worked for a time as a salesman and was good at it. The years closed behind a different path.

In “Higher education” we learn of Joel’s struggles in education, including never receiving a high school diploma; after attending several colleges he earned an undergraduate degree at Cal-Berkeley. While working on a master’s, he turned down a permanent berth in a school and then was unable to complete the degree. In a letter, entered under “Spin the bottle,” he reflects on teaching’s appeal for him. Subjected to psychiatry as a youth when “I should have been playing spin-the-bottle” he’s also angry because he feels his father abdicated his  responsibilities to teachers. Yet Joel chose a life “emulating and building upon” his own father surrogates and implies that teaching was a way for him to act in a father’s role himself.

Mostly this memoir isn’t “reported” or “researched”—though it uses effectively the available evidence, including Joel’s sardonic letters and a former girlfriend’s e-mails to Aldrich. Companion to an Untold Story, winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, is ultimately a meditation on memory and mystery. Released from event sequence, its approach searching but indirect, like poetry, Aldrich’s memoir is compulsively readable and surprisingly moving.

Next: An interview with Marcia Aldrich.

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