Lanie Tankard is back! This time she has read and reviewed a memoir that challenges the boundaries of the genre–and in the process tells a life story (indirectly). I think you will find her review fascinating. I know she would love your comment, no matter what you think. Anyone teaching the genre, and brave souls who are open to a critique in the midst of writing a memoir, ought to read this book.
Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir
by Ander Monson
Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, April 2010 (208 pp., paperback)
Ander Monson jump starts your brain’s synapses with different connections in his new nonmemoir, Vanishing Point. He observes society. He muses. He sprinkles in a few personal experiences. And he does his edgy best to ignore the self in a genre that is nothing but. He forces the reader to consider memoir in a creative new light.
Monson has also written a book of essays, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, and a book of stories, Other Electricities, which appear on his website: http://otherelectricities.com/.
In Vanishing Point, Monson has pulled together eighteen essays. Because some were previously published as stand-alone pieces, the volume bears a certain lack of coherence throughout, a few glitches in segue. Even so, this postmodern book kept me mostly riveted during the entirety of a nonstop evening flight from San Jose to Austin. And besides, isn’t that actually how we think, with one thought springing off another all the time — veering askew of the main idea with which we began and funneling our paths through labyrinthine conduits to a meetup in the nethermost region of our minds?
Because Monson perused close to one hundred memoirs to analyze the field, I thought the 100 Memoirs website would be an appropriate venue for reviewing the result. His list of eighty-three at the end of Vanishing Point includes some excellent reads.
He asks valid questions: Are we being obliterated by information? He compares journalism (verifiable truth) and memoir, discusses individualism and collectivism, looks at memory prevention drugs like Versed in surgery, examines the reliability of eyewitness testimony, delves into fact checking for family history, considers the rerouting of synapses in false memories, and compares fiction and nonfiction. He visits respected sources, although full citations do not appear in the book. The protagonist in this masterful chronicle is memory.
The author offers many strong points to consider, such as: “When technique becomes popular fashion, it becomes overused. Its special qualities fall away. All that remains is fad.”
Monson says that he is trying to find the courage NOT to tell his story. And yet, he also parses events in his own life — moving, death, jury duty, eating. Instead of merely stating that he is moving, he thinks about what leaving a city means. He compares floppy disks and the tenure of a book to our life spans: “Thinking about the memoir, or our lives at all, is thinking about death, about technology, about how obsolete we all are soon to become….”
Does Monson’s book succeed in defying classification? He appears to me to have written a memoir despite his best efforts to avoid doing so. Is Vanishing Point possibly a memoir about memoir? The author certainly evinces a strong resistance to the category. The subtitle is “Not a Memoir,” yet at several points in the book Monson refers to it as “this memoir.” Hmmm, perhaps memoir just sneaks up on you when you least expect it?
At the same time, the author has psychoanalyzed the field in a highly engaging philosophical treatise. He weighs the frame narrative in terms of presenting the truth, and ponders framing the future in terms of the past. He casts memoir as map. He comments that “with GPS, the whole idea of being lost is now entirely quaint.” Monson mulls over memoir as palimpsest, wonders whether the self is a wiki, steps outside of himself to observe the ubiquitous use of free wireless at places such as Panera Bread: “Earbuds are in, so we are partly in our inner space.” At times, he reminded me of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. http://bit.ly/5aEmK9
What is a page? Monson decides to find out. He plays with layout and margins. He trims the sides off letters. He repeats the word me across an entire page, saying “I am putting the me back in memoir for you.” He examines “all that protects us from white space.” He seeks meaning everywhere, wanting to “leave some Borges behind the wall…something visionary and meaningful.” He digresses on self-Googling. He wonders whether communicating with old friends via social media is forcing us into being our old selves again. He believes that the rise of memoir coincided with the rise of role-playing games, and casts memoirists as gamers — role playing, battling conditions, and triumphing. He has some thoughtful turns of phrase: “your fellow Internetters” and “tiny fingerlings” for small potatoes.
And yet he tries so hard not to write memoir that occasionally (to use one of his own statements) he “makes me want to hit him with a rolled up REM/Losing My Religion poster.”
I recommend Vanishing Point to any open-minded reader interested in memoir as a broad playing field. Monson posits, “It’s likely that we are not as individual as we would like to think” and offers solid food for thought on that idea.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas.