PURELY COINCIDENTAL RESEMBLANCE TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD: WORRY AND FICTION IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LIFE WRITING
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At the end of the twentieth century and the opening of the twenty-first, American life writing remains both an unsettled form and an unsettling practice. This study addresses six representative texts that suggest a critique of life writing as they deploy self-conscious fictionalization, experiment, and suspicion of their own strategies. Three of the works under analysis signal a noteworthy change in contemporary U.S. life writing. As they interrogate the conventions of memoir and biography, they begin to insist on notions of self, history, and agency at odds with the poststructuralisms that shape their approaches to representing selves and histories. These instances of vexed life writing, having recognized and engaged the constructedness of experience, memory, and self, nevertheless struggle to operate as nonfiction.
Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Edmund Morris' Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace are symptomatic instances of panic in contemporary American life writing. In each of these memoirs, the life writer supplements ostensibly nonfiction narratives with metacommentary and fiction but posits neither the fantasy of an authoritative master narrative nor the jouissance of having abandoned the same. Obliged to what each memoirist identifies as his or her local responsibilities, these texts struggle toward representing freighted experiences.
I read these texts as uneasy heirs to three predecessors that adopt parallel methods to represent lives but make distinct arguments about life writing. Eggers' memoir echoes the form and epistemology of Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Morris' experimental presidential biography follows Gore Vidal's Lincoln: A Novel. The Fifth Book of Peace counters Kingston's own family memoir, China Men. As the contemporary examples of life writing adopt the postmodern forfeiture of stable representation, they do so under an anxiousness that McCarthy, Vidal, and the early Kingston evade. The presence of that worry in contemporary American life writing indicates the limits of this category of text and the native tension between postmodern indeterminacy and specifically obliged life writing.