Crossing the Fine Line: from Novels to Memoirs

The last three novels I’ve read weren’t novels.

Let me re-phrase that. The last three books I read were not novels, but I read them as though they were novels, and with good reason. They look like novels, they unfold in chapters, they have a narrator, characters, plots, surprises, dramatic trajectory, good writing, insights. I read them like ultra-realistic novels with exotic locales. They were escape fiction without being fiction. Three utterly different books, not novels, giving me everything a realistic novel could give me.

The memoir is an underestimated art form. Sure, it’s a halfbreed, the illegitimate offspring of Biography and Fiction, but the artistic possibilities of a memoir in the right hands are unlimited. It’s a chunk of non-fiction that’s gone through a personal selection process and become humanized, so that instead of just recounting the data of what happened, it’s a portrait of reality from a limited perspective, from the point of view of the narrator telling the story.

Whether that story be real or just realistic.

Biography is altogether different. Biography is a life-assessment, and means including everything. Sheer gatherings of facts lack the refinement of the selection process that goes into the narrower, tighter form of the memoir: only those facts that help to tell the story. Exactly the same criterion as a novel has. A biography honors a life. A memoir tells a specific story.

I was on a bender of bad European novels, one disappointment after another, when I was slammed by the power and delight of Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. It could have been a novel. It was instantly gripping. The narrator is an idealistic young vegetarian Southern California boy with a ponytail. He cares profoundly about urban poverty, and he’s come to the dangerous high-rise housing projects of Chicago. He’s in way over his head. He asks a gang of crack dealers how it feels to be poor and black in America. It’s funny and eye-opening and eye-popping, as good as any novel about the growth of a sincere young grad student making plenty of mistakes as he dares to risk his neck to discover the truth.

Next I read Daoud Hari’s harrowing The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur. I really didn’t want to read this one, and picked it up hoping it would be poorly written so I’d have an excuse. I was sunk. The style is graceful, honest, spare and restrained, with an occasional flashes of helpless rage. The narrator’s irrepressible sense of humor and bottomless compassion for all make what could have been a gallery of horrors into a vibrant crucible for the human spirit. Daoud is a wonderful narrator, with his love of camels (he thinks they’re beautiful) and his fear of crossing over water. The two men who accompany Daoud on the final third of the memoir are as sharply defined as any novel’s characters, and their battering odyssey cancelled all my plans, since I was unable to leave my armchair during the final seventy pages.

And now I’m reading Richard Grant’s rough-and-funny Mexican adventure, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre. Once again I have a delightful, personable narrator with a weakness for spicing up his life with the uneasiness of danger, a guy who also can write like an angel as he takes a little jaunt through drug-trafficking country where the leading cause of death for adult males is homicide.

Faced with a growing pile of novels waiting to be read, why am I reading memoirs? Can you seriously ask? I’m in reading heaven. Who cares if they’re not called novels? If the only distinction between a brilliant memoir and a brilliant first-person novel is that one says it’s true and one says it’s not, what we really have is one genre that spans both fiction and non-fiction, equally discussable, equally entertaining, and at the moment there are some true memoir gems hitting bookstores.

Novel-lovers, what’s important: what a book is called on the cover or if you get your fix?

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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