“Blur” by David Shields
Most, perhaps even all, good work (or, okay, work that excites me) eludes easy generic classification: once we know it’s working entirely within the lines called “novel” or “memoir” or “Hollywood movie,” I honestly don’t see how anything emotionally or intellectually interesting can happen for the reader.
I want to assert the importance of positioning the writer and reader in an unstable position in relation to each other and to the text. It’s crucial, in my formulation, that both the writer and reader not be certain what the form is, that the work be allowed to go wherever it needs to go to penetrate its subject. My misreading of David Remnick’s profile of Bill Clinton as the first page of Miranda July’s short story was more interesting to me than the story itself; the excitement of the Lonelygirl15 phenomenon resided entirely during the period when you couldn’t tell what it or she was.
Genre is a minimum-security prison.
Just as out-and-out fiction no longer compels my attention, neither does straight-ahead memoir. As soon as a book can be generically located, it seems to me for all intents and purposes dead. I want the contingency of life, the unpredictability, the unknowability, the mysteriousness, and this is best captured when the work can bend at will to what it needs: fiction, fantasy, memoir, meditation, confession, reportage. Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, “This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard.” I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unselfconsciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now. Instead, it must constantly be shifting shape, redefining itself, staying open for business way past closing time. “Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between,” my father would often advise me, but it seems to me that Mr. In-Between is precisely where we all live now.
In all the reconstructive or restorative arts--forensics, forensic anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, art restoration, fields in which scholars have put enormous work into defining methods, freedoms, and boundaries as they strive to fill in the blanks of history--people make the best educated guess as to what “really” happened. Archaeologists imagine the buildings that once stood upon the foundations they unearth. Forensic specialists imagine the faces that masked old skulls. An art restorer “paints over” a painting to bring it “back to the original.” A police sketch of a suspected criminal is routinely derived from the imaginations of several witnesses. Similarly, imagined stories have an important place in nonfiction. Why are certain kinds of “knowing” favored over others in a genre in which veracity carries weight?
There is only one kind of memoir I can see to write and that’s a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating one, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.
A character is either “real” or “imaginary”? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not think of even your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it, fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf--your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens.
By eluding definitive observation, he remains perpetually real and perpetually imaginary.
To be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.
According to Ulric Neisser’s analysis of the structure of episodic memory, we rely--in our remembering--on complex narrative strategies which closely resemble the strategies writers use to produce realist fiction. David Pillemer, whose specialty is “vivid memories,” thinks that it takes something like a painter’s touch (the mind being the painter) to bring a memory to life and create belief. Antonio Damasio compares consciousness to a “movie in the brain” and argues that memories are just one among the many captions and images that our mind makes up to help us survive in the world. Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.
Anything processed by memory is fiction.
Remembering his country, he imagined it.
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