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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7 Comments

Filed under memoir, narrative, REVIEW, structure

7 responses to “An alphabetical memoir

  1. What an innovative technique! And just when you think everything’s been done already. Thanks for covering this, Richard. I’m adding it to my list, and hope to cover it some day.

  2. Thanks for this information. I’m eager to check out this book. Sounds like an original and innovative structure. I wish I could be that creative!

  3. This immediately brought to mind Joan Wickersham’s amazing memoir called THE SUICIDE INDEX. Have you read it, Richard? Like the one you mention above, it breaks up the conventional narrative structure by organizing the material under an “index”: “Suicide: act of/ attempt to imagine1-4; bare-bones account, 5-6; immediate aftermath, 7-34; anger about, 35, etc. I’m not explaining this very well, but it is really a superb memoir about the author’s father death and the effects on her. It’s curious that both these memoirs on suicide use an alphabetical structure. I wonder who influenced whom!

    • I have not read that one, Paulette. Aldrich is experimental in form in her other work I have read, essays. Adopting a form seems very freeing. But it wouldn’t wear well if we all used the companion structure, would it? The variations in structure, even in fairly traditional narratives, may be more important than I’ve ever realized. How bored readers would get to read the same structure over and over. I know that language obscures structure to a degree, but structure is a deep unspoken language we’re all in conversation with.

      • Hi, Richard. In some sense, the structure cannot be separated from the words (I’m humming an old tune here, the form and content one, except with reference to style and form, if that’s any different). I mean, I haven’t read the companion form you mention, but I can see how it would be more episodic than “through-narrative,” and thus would mark the individual meetings and bits of knowledge we had about someone quite well, in the episodic form in which we gain that knowledge (I mean, of course, that our exposure to each other’s psyches and personalities and life stories aren’t constant and continuous, but interrupted). We ourselves supply the continuity in our own beings for what we know of others. I hope to read the book you mention soon, possibly getting an idea for how to proceed with a novel (fiction) that I have in hand. It too looks like it’s shaping up to have an episodic structure, though I hadn’t thought, quite honestly, of the companion form. Thanks for the idea and the post.

    • Max

      I’m not sure if responding is the proper etiquette. But I have read “The Suicide Index” and would also agree that there are connections between my book and hers, but also differences. For one, “The Index” is essentially a narrative with an index, broken into pieces and presented in the order of the index. The entries in my book, “Companion,” are not all narrative, but variously epistolary, expository, lyrical, and so on. In this way its form seems the more radical of the two. I also felt that the idea of the companion did the emotional work of accompanying an essentially unaccompanied man. There’s lots to say and think about as to why writers might be turning to forms which impede or complicate the narrative drive. I can only speak for myself, but with suicide the ending is inevitable and known, a narrative so dominant that I felt I needed a structure to work against the narrative drive. In addition, in writing about material that is so devastating and personal, sometimes the writer needs a certain distance in order to see what the story is. That was true for me. Thanks for thinking about these issues.

      • Thanks for discussing this, Marcia. I found your fracturing the chronological narrative very compelling, and I imagine it was very freeing for you as a writer. Although what you did might be considered a postmodern technique, I think it’s very natural for readers. As in life, where we get bits and pieces of story and information and fashion it ourselves into an ever-shifting inner narrative.