In part, I’m writing today in the wake of the thoughtful comment by Dedwards, posted in response to my first entry on Lauren Slater’s Lying. It’s worth a read (the book, obviously, but right now I mean the response), and I encourage all interested parties to do so.
I’ll wait a second…
Okay, thanks for doing that.
The most significant question of Dedwards’s response relates to the notion of formal innovation, both whether Slater needed to constantly undermine the veracity of her narrative and whether or not she simultaneously invented and took-to-its-end a sub genre of memoir. The simple answer to each of those is yes…sort of. And while I don’t mean, really, to write here only in response to the ideas of the post, I am going to use it as a launching pad.
Initially, the chief concern lies in the arena of the meta. As someone wise once suggested, all creative nonfiction can be read at some level as an act of meta-writing (and, really, I suppose all writing can be considered at this level, since the act of literary creation is the act of creating the very structures and limits of chosen form), and certainly Slater is keenly aware that her memoir is partly a direct response to the late-1990s state of the memoir industry. But thinking of it only in these terms creates a tremendous limitation: if Lying is just an act of meta-memoir, then it hardly deserves further examination beyond the aha! moment of meta-revelation.
On the level of the direct, then, as I touched upon in my previous post, the craft choice of instability is partly the aboutness of Lying. Slater can’t know, so the reader can’t know. Extending that further, the fullness of the metaphorical aspect of the memoir, something Slater suggests might be extensive, adds further instability and tension. As the memoir progresses, the reader learns that, perhaps, Slater has Munchausen’s Syndrome, which is to say that her specific medical condition could be the condition of making things up (“I exaggerate” indeed!). Within the text, she goes to great pains to capitalize on the tension between what can and cannot be known — epilepsy or Munchausen or something else — and also goes to great lengths to create various veneers of truth. In Chapter 4 she “cites” medical “texts,” which cannot be fully trusted (and which can, in fact, be fact-checked). The last of these, of course, is clearly fabricated, since the subject of the study is “Jean Levy,” the name Slater uses as an alias two chapters hence, and particularly because the description of this case study is more less the jacket copy of Lying. Most notably, the except begins this way:
We have noted that epilepsy is one of the illnesses frequently chosen by Munchausen’s patients, and that, despite the stubbornness with which they cling to their illness facades, they also desire to be revealed. (90)
That’s the mission statement of the memoir: Slater seeks to both create a fully believable case for her “epilepsy” and wants the reader to know it’s not “true.” Quotes are important here, to indicate the full power of the metaphor of epilepsy and the full instability of “true.”
A quick clarification: it would be easy to retreat to the shifty stance of arguing for the power of emotional truth versus factual truth, something Slater engages in the book and, in the popular crises of creative nonfiction, some defenders of deceit in the genre have suggested is the only ethical requirement of the memoirist. I disagree, since the power of creative nonfiction relies on the implicit contract of reality — the effect of the stories we tell relates directly to the veracity of event portrayed. Or, in the case of Slater, the effect of her stories relates directly to the unstable veracity of events. Simply, the signals of questionability help guarantee ethical practice. More complexly, the way that Slater creates unknowable factuality intersects with our desire to know what happened and creates the narrative impulse of the memoir. We can’t know, which is a large portion of what the book is about, at both the narrative and meta-memoir level.
So, back to the meta, and to the end of the book: “And still. You want to know. What are the real facts about the condition I call epilepsy in the story” (220). Slater goes on to describe her “actual” medical condition, whose diagnosis has shifted over time as medical comprehension has shifted. Depending on who and when you ask, she has suffered (or not) from a wide variety of disorders, all of which are precisely the same condition of being. That all boils down to these final words in the Afterword:
Therefore, despite the huge proliferation of authoritative illness memoirs in recent years, memoirs that talk about people’s personal experience with Tourette’s and postpartum depression and manic depression, memoirs that are often rooted in the latest scientific “evidence,” something is amiss. For me, the authority is illusory, the etiologies constructed. When all is said and done, there is only one kind of illness memoir I can write, and that’s a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark. (221)
This is the high energy moment of collision between the subatomic particles of memoir and meta-memoir. In the flash of that wreck, Slater demonstrates how Lying is both and neither. Yes, it is a story of her struggle with illness, metaphorized to epilepsy. Yes, it is an intervention into the knowability of truth and the position of the memoirist. No, it is not about epilepsy. No, it is not about memoir.
Lying is a text that, in its totality, narrates the meta-nature of our very concept of illness. Because of the metaphors of science and medicine, we feel always the need to separate order from disorder, to place clear name to “conditions” that are defined explicitly as deviations from “normality.” Yet Slater struggles throughout the memoir to argue for the condition of her life, not as disorder but as state of being. The very shiftiness of diagnoses is a revelation of the perils of our demands for explicit order: things can’t be known or, rather, are only known by the labels we happen to apply.