Exploring Character Through Memoir

Curious Expeditions

Fiction readers expect more of characters than they do of people in real life. In life you can have a person who does inexplicable self-destructive or transgressive shit, and friends and colleagues just shake their heads and say, “Oh, that’s just Charlie being Charlie.” But if you have a character who is behaving in an inexplicable way, what you hear is, “But I don’t understand his motivation.” Or, if you have a character who keeps her own counsel and maybe is more cerebral than emotional, you hear “She’s so opaque, I really can’t get a read on her.”  Surely, most of us have dealings with people – even close friends sometimes – who are opaque, and generally it’s not a problem.

As a result of those critiques, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make my characters reveal themselves (sufficiently) in direct and indirect ways, intentionally vs. unintentionally. When I keep getting those comments after a revision, I wonder if this particular stumbling block is really about me not wanting to reveal aspects of myself.  Reading novels wasn’t helping me think this through, so I decided to look at memoir to explore how the ‘I’ narrator reveals him or herself (or not). I read three very different ones – The Faraway Nearby  by Rebecca Solnit, In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi, and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie.

Rebecca Solnit writes her memoir around three triggers – her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s,  her own preventative breast cancer surgery, and the breakup of a long term relationship. In this memoir, her opening chapter is called ‘Apricots’, introducing a central metaphor for her book – 100 pounds of  apricots, stripped from a tree at her mother’s recently vacated home by Solnit’s brother and sent to her house, when the siblings get their mother moved into an assisted living facility.  Solnit says of the apricots, “I expected them to look like abundance itself, but instead they looked like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or a dozen to cull…” There is no doubt she can write circles around most of us, but from this metaphor one expects (or at least I expected) a lush narrative about these three harrowing events, during which we would be pulled in emotionally, but that didn’t happen. For one thing, she is hyper aware that she is shaping her narrative. She begins her book “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling,” but how much does she really tell us? In retreat from her breast surgery and her failed relationship she goes to Iceland (ice and frozen wastelands is another recurring theme) to live in a borrowed home where she “lived among strangers and birds.” The strangers remain strangers, even refusing to talk to her when she takes a tourist boat out onto the water. Reading between the lines of  her narrative I thought, ‘She must have felt unspeakably lonely,’ but I wasn’t sure because we are flooded with long reflections on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, on a local art installation, on the Marquis de Sade, on Che Guevara as portrayed in the Motorcycle Diaries, among many, many others. Every personal experience was a launching pad for an impressive display of learning. She came across as someone who invites you in with a warm and intriguing smile, but keeps you at bay with a stiff arm to the chest, less opaque than well armored.

Susan Faludi’s memoir is about re-establishing her relationship to her father, a former New York fashion photographer, who had left his US family years before to return to his native Hungary and then, in his sixties, transitioned from a man to a woman. Faludi, a noted feminist and author of Backlash, is flummoxed that her hyper-masculine, patriarchal father has become a hyper-feminine woman who claims that it is far more advantageous to be a woman than a man in Hungarian society. Faludi believes that if she can just get her father to open up about her life, especially her early years in Hungary, she’ll be able to understand her father then and now. When Faludi finally does claw out information, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, it turns out he (as he was at the time) was a quite brave participant in the resistance to the Nazis for the purposes of saving his immediate Jewish family from the holocaust. Faludi is openly bewildered hearing this story coming from the matronly, nationalistic, borderline anti-Semitic woman she’s become. Although Faludi actually tells us very little about herself or her feelings, her confusion, frustration, and simmering anger with her father is evident throughout, and suggests a vulnerability that creates a deep sympathy for her. I felt for her in a way I didn’t for Solnit.

Central to Sherman Alexie’s book is his difficult relationship with his mother, but his memoir is also about the oppressive and damaging relationship between Indians (the term he uses) and the dominant Anglo culture and the destruction that has sown amongst generations of native peoples. His book reads like he is trying to tame a volcano of unruly and painful emotions by burying them in a torrent of words (greatly different in form, but similar in purpose to Solnit), but the raw feelings keep shooting out like geysers, especially through the lines of his uneven poetry. He gradually works his way toward some sort of closure, making progress in accepting his mother in all her complexity and through that coming to a greater acceptance of himself, wrapping the memoir up in a more traditional way than either Faludi or Solnit choose to do. It turns out that neatish package was wrapped in barbed wire. Alexie had to cancel his book tour when he found the memoir’s content still too painful to discuss with the public.

So, the take aways from this excursion?  Sometimes a lot of verbiage, even beautifully rendered verbiage, doesn’t get us closer to our characters, but rather pushes us away.  Sometimes less is more, and a narrator’s reticence gives the reader’s imagination room to create openings and foster sympathy. Sometimes emotions are expressed in big, messy, unpretty ways and you think ‘Too much,’ but then you think, ‘Pay attention, there’s even more here than meets the eye.’  Of the three, I think I have the most to learn from Faludi, but also saw the power of raw emotion in Sherman Alexie’s cri de coeur. I remain in awe of Solnit as an essayist and original thinker, but in this format, too aware of the reader. Finally, it confirms the importance of one’s writing friends – the patient readers and re-readers who tell you, that you’ve nailed it…or you haven’t quite yet.

2 comments

  1. anna

    Thank you for this finely nuanced piece about three memoirs and the differences between them. I am a great admirer of Sherman Alexie and always appreciate his use of the term “Indian” to mean exactly that (the use of “Native Americans” cannot be a synonym for “Indian,” however well meant, because Native Americans by definition include all the Alaska Native people, both Indian and non-Indian).

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