[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]
On two memoirs that deal very differently, but equally impressively, with tragic losses.
Memoir, or as it’s often called within scholarly conversations “life writing (although the concept includes biographical as well as autobiographical works),” is a pretty complex and fraught literary genre. Even leaving aside the questions of veracity and authenticity that have been raised by numerous recent memoirs (most particularly James Frye’s A Million Little Pieces  and the Oprah-related scandal it produced), the basic facts of any memoir are plenty complex enough: a person looking back at his or her life and trying to write about some of its events and themes for outside audiences, with various private and public motives, with all of the choices that go into any written work, with all that is potentially left out, and so on. Yet as long as we recognize all those factors, and thus treat memoirs as fundamentally creative works, the genre can also provide powerful and inspiring stories, narratives of individuals dealing with and working through (in many cases) difficult and adverse situations.
Moreover, memoirs can highlight in their style and tone, as much as in their content and themes, the hugely varied and equally effective ways in which we can respond to such situations. To that end, I would point to two recent, justly celebrated memoirs, one by an already prominent writer and one that established its author on the literary scene, but both dealing centrally with tragic losses and the authors’ responses to them. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) details the author’s many stages and extremes in the year after the unexpected death of her husband of forty years, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, a period during which their daughter was also gravely ill. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) traces the author’s many years of stewardship over his younger brother, an effort that Eggers undertook after their parents’ unexpected deaths within 32 days of one another (Eggers was 21 and his brother 8 at the time). Both number among the most compelling American memoirs I’ve read, and certainly among the most vital contributions to the genre in the early 21st century.
Yet despite those many parallels, the two books could not be more different in their predominant styles and tones. Those differences are due in no small measure to their authors’ distinct voices: Didion has throughout her career written complex psychological, fragmented, and often stream of consciousness novels and non-fiction, and adopts similar perspectives and themes for her memoir; whereas Eggers has become known as a founder of McSweeney’s, the editor of the Best American Non-Required Reading series, and other counter-cultural and satirical works, and brings that persona to both of his roles (as author and as main character) in his memoir. But I would also argue that the books’ differences reflect two distinct, if perhaps complementary, ways to write and work through loss and adversity: in Didion’s case, to allow each and every part of the experience its time and space, to engage with every emotion and response without judgment or fear (or at least not self-consciousness), and to chart that process in writing; and in Eggers’ case, to emphasize self-consciously the hyperbole itself, the extremes of adversity and of heroism in combating them, to find the humor but also certainly the pathos within those extremes, and to tell that story with charisma for his audience. Each, again, works very well on its own terms; together they offer a multi-part map to dealing with, and writing about, the worst of what people can experience.
Next inspiring response to adversity tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?