Lauren Slater

The Invisible Self

Willian Least Heat-Moon begins Blue Highways with a series of very short chapters, setting the stage for the voyage he’ll soon take in his “truck” (let’s be clear: it’s a van) named Ghost Dancing. Chapter 3 starts this way: “A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic” (4). And he ends it like this:

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected. (5)

Then we’re off, climbing into Ghost Dancing with Heat-Moon (Is this why he calls it a truck? Because saying climbing in the van with Heat-Moon sounds a bit sketchy? Get in my van and I’ll show you America, yeah, America. But think of all the famous vans that have come to pass…the Mystery Machine of Scooby Do, the black van of the A-Team. Let us not dishonor the literary history of vans by calling Ghost Dancing a truck!)) as he travels the so-called “blue highways” of the country, the back routes, through towns off the Interstate, where we get the growing sense that the project of the book is to show some kind of real America to the reader and to the author.

But what of the self of that author, our narrator who quickly dispenses with the raw materials of his identity — age, marital status, van ownership — and promises to stay away from what Scott Russell Sanders describes as “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (“Singular First Person”)? And let me dispense with this idea straight off: Blue Highways is certainly written within that voice, is animated by the clear presence of Heat-Moon narrating this drive. There’s nothing objective about the voice, nor the project, and I don’t think Heat-Moon would argue with that. The shutting up about that topic that he references is the singular focus on the self as subject and not the denial of the power of the singular voice.

Still, the book is undeniably, about William Least Heat-Moon. About halfway in, after lots and lots of writing about other people, extensive quotations, and history, and exhaustive listing of the food he finds at diners, Heat-Moon winds up in the desert of Eastern Arizona:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force of spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous, mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. (162)

“A new land of the eye” might has well be written “a new land of the I,” as the seeing of the moments to follow are the emergence of the vision of the self, the recognition that as much as he might deny it as the source of the project, the subject of Blue Highways is that, even when it isn’t. Really, what road book isn’t about the person on the road? On the Road is about America, sort of, but really focuses on Jack Kerouac. Eat Pray Love is about Elizabeth Gibert. The Songlines is about Bruce Chatwin. And on and on.

I mean this as no criticism, of either Heat-Moon or of the genre of travel writing. Quite the opposite: any book of travel that implies objectivity is false. The traveler is always the subject, even if the reader thinks he/she is gaining some kind of overview of a place previously unknown. There’s a reason, after all, that mid-century maps and guide books were sponsored by oil companies. They were the real subjects, urging travelers to know that about other places, that being the unstable need to pump gasoline into tanks to feed engines to turn wheels that take travelers to places. The literary travel writer isn’t, of course, in the business of selling oil or tires but, instead, peddles the self as a vehicle of transport.

I doubt Heat-Moon was ever ignorant of this fact. Heck, the first page of Blue Highways offers this idea: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go” (3). Yet he proceeds with the attempt to subordinate the self as subject as he does this. While it’s possible that he took the voyage that makes the material of the book without a clear sense that he was looking for himself (but, c’mon, that’s precisely what the American road book is all about, and why a literary person hits the road at a time of personal crisis, at least partly), certainly he knew by the time of the writing that the self was an unavoidable subject. Still, the claim is made.

And, notably, this is a claim that has been made by every book under consideration this semester: Patricia Hampl recedes for the middle of her memoir. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher searches for himself via his father (and, ultimately, mother). Mark Doty finds himself in his mother (and, ultimately, his father). Lauren Slater finds herself by creating a fake self. Maxine Hong Kingston writes the self through the application of myth and story.

What gives? Particularly since that subject is an inevitable portion of any kind of autobiographical writing. Clearly, when we write from the perspective of the self, we write about the self, no matter how we seek to evade or subsume ourselves as subject.

I think the distinction lies between subject and singular subject, as this is the distinction I see between pop-memoir/autobiography/political memoirs and literary memoir. In the first category, the subject of the book is the subject of the book: the self matters most of all, because readers are drawn to the dramatic features of the individual. This, also, is why I consider a healthy chunk of even creative nonfiction as more-or-less the equivalent of genre fiction. For many books, “plot” matters more than anything else. In the case of popular nonfiction et al, plot equates to the singular personality of the writer. It’s no mystery, then, why the first titles that often come to the popular mind when hearing the word “memoir” are tales of personal triumph, degradation and recovery, medical trauma, and all sorts of melodrama. This, also, is why I admire what Lying does in the sub-genre of the medical memoir, since Slater absolutely resists the “requirement” to make this about recovery. Genre nonfiction lacks subtlety, and while Lying isn’t exactly subtle in the way of Descanso, Slater’s narrative is oblique, which I suppose is another kind of subtle: look at this so you can understand that, but don’t look directly at that.

Literary memoir focuses on a different sort of aspect of self. Sven Birkerts describes the function of pain in what he calls traumatic memoir in a way that I think does a lot to define how the self works in literary memoir, as sources that “create discontinuities in a life that often require different strategies of presentation” (145). I’d like to suggest that the writing of the self in careful memoir is always the writing of our own discontinuities, which are born partly of the multiplicities that are each of us and partly of the way other lives intersect with our own in creating our sense of self.

The desire to deflect, then, to write about others or, even, to claim a desire to not write about the self is a good faith recognition of the discontinuity of experience. This is, perhaps, the most important way that a writer can avoid the sort of solipsistic, navel-gazing work that dominates the nonfiction bestseller list (alongside soporific, terrifying guides to business management techniques). If we accept ourself as part of the subject of our lives, we recognize the way our sense of self develops through interaction and, perhaps even more importantly, we are able to write memoir that reflects the lives of readers as well as authors. A literary memoir helps the reader see him or herself in the author’s story. As Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8). I’ll add that, in order to write about our own experience, we often need to pass through the doors of others.

Apparatus and Invention

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.

(Un)Reliability in Memoir

A) In full, chapter one of Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying: “I exaggerate.”

B) And this from Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir: “…memoir is undertaken not just as another kind of artistic expression, which is to say a work created for an intended audience, but also as an act of self-completion” (88).

C) What does a writer do if the act of self-completion forces her to consider the gaps in a life that cannot be filled? See “A.”

***

As memoir, Lying addresses both a unique and resolutely universal conundrum, the instability of memory, which complicates the writing of a piece of art that in its very definition depends on memory. If memoir seeks to think back on a portion of life, reinhabit memory, then apply the lens of time to make sense of those memories, the enterprise would seem to be utterly corrupted when the view through the lens magnifies a gaping hole or, in fact, if the application of the lens functions like a magnifying class aimed at an ant in the hot sun, the multiplication of energy causing the obliteration of the subject of study. Such a memoir would be a close-up image of a smoking hole. And in many respects, Lauren Slater writers of the examination of such absence. Hers is a story of reconciling childhood epilepsy (or appears to be…instability makes me question everything in this book), which she describes as having left gaps in memory. Experience has been erased, and in this memoir she seeks to write and examine that experience.

So, directly, Slater’s admissions of exaggeration are revelations of experience. I hope that doesn’t strike anyone as too post-modern, this intentional absence functioning as commentary on the absences of life. Indeed, this is the only tactic that Slater has in reconstructing her life. She cannot complete the self in the same fashion as other memoirists, because she cannot access or even pretend to access memories. About fifty pages in, she writes the magic words THE END, then flips everything around on the next page, just so we’re clear on what’s happening:

Not quite.

This is a work of nonfiction. Everything in it is supposed to be true. In some instances names of people and places have been changed to protect their privacy, but the essential story should at least aim for accuracy, so the establishment says. Therefore, I confess. To the establishment. I didn’t really fall into the grave. I was just using a metaphor to try to explain my mental state. The real truth is I went to the funeral, the hearse had engine trouble, the coffin was late, I looked into the grave, and I thought about falling in. (60).

Page 59 offers the narrative clarity we desire in reading, a story that comes to a satisfying and properly evocative ending, Slater lying at the bottom of a grave looking up at the faces peering over the rim. Page 60 presents the complication, that it didn’t happen even as it did, because things that happen in the mind are every bit as real to the body as things that happen physically. Perhaps obviously, in a memoir focused on the deep issues of the brain, writing through this aspect (and against the mind-body split) is crucial.

What memoir isn’t about this, actually? In Firebird, Mark Doty looks through lenses of time to repopulate the memories of his childhood, and he identifies his project as the construction of a perspective box, which is to say, a box built of distortions and viewed through different resolutions. In Descanso for My Father, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher assembles a version of his father through the collection of pieces, which is to say he reconstructs a false image through the act of tertiary memory. In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl addresses the difficulty of could in the telling, and the slipperiness of memories of learning to play the piano, and how writing through the false memory leads to something…else.

While it’s too easy to repeat this aphorism, I repeat it anyway: all memoir is meta-memoir. How can it not be, if the project of the writing relies in the ethical engagement of memories that can never be fully trusted? I say too easy, though, because Lying cannot be reduced to mere meta-artifact; it is not just or even a book about writing memoir. Sure, we can read it that way, since the trouble of memory that Slater considers is the trouble of the genre, but Lying is also a tremendous act of ethical reconstruction. It is a memoir (how I want a strand of significant organ music to play as you read those words), and it is concerned primarily with the very construction of self that Birkerts suggests as central to this particular style of art.

I’ll back up here for a moment, to my aside about never trusting anything in Lying, that I’m never quite sure if she’s really writing about epilepsy or if she’s using it as a metaphor for something else. While this, too, sounds overly-meta, I think that’s part of the point. Even though Slater keeps reminding the reader of when she exaggerates, or when she is flat out lying (think, again, about page 60), that act works to weaken the reader’s resolve to see the action on the pages as fully literal. Yet, also, it encourages the reader to trust the moments that are presented as real, because Slater has established herself as reliably unreliable. She’ll tell you if she’s lying…right…won’t she?

Maybe. Maybe not. How could she if she herself doesn’t even know? Ultimately, that’s the point of the accent on unreliability, that we can never knows as readers because she can never know as writer. So we are forced to trust experience in the same way she trusts experience, which is to say that we can’t but also do. Which is to say that the memoir functions simultaneously as meta and literal text. Which is to say that memoir itself, even life itself, is about dealing with the unreliability of our own narrative centers. We do that automatically every day, yet also experience the frustration of moments when, say, a loved one remembers a cherished moment different than we do. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Both…neither…we can never quite know.