The Resistance of Memory

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Ander Monson attempts to move beyond “the singular authority of ‘I’ in nonfiction,” exploring new possibilities for the memoir form.

There is a poem in Ander Monson’s first collection called “I Have a Theory about This Elegy.” Monson’s new book of nonfiction, Vanishing Point, might be subtitled “I Have a Theory about Memoir.” Vanishing Point is a collage of vignettes, found texts, improvisations, and well-crafted personal essays, as well as a meditation on the meaning—and means—of memoir. Vanishing Point rolls along like the ball in Katamari Damarcy (a video game Monson explicitly refers to), picking up meanings and associations as it goes. And it is Monson’s best use of the book-as-collage to make a meaning greater than any individual piece or sentence can convey.

Though Vanishing Point is subtitled Not a Memoir, it turns out to contain the seeds of one. Just under the surface of this work is the story of Monson’s move from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Tucson, Arizona. This move is not told in the play-by-play scene-and-summary of a conventional memoir, but by the accretion of small details, most notably in the three rhapsodic essays titled “Vanishing Point.” Fans of Monson’s fiction and poems will find much to love here; the “Vanishing Point” essays are told in the first-person plural: “On Godrey St. SW we are increasingly desiring to know everything about the city, to capture its incomprehensibility, its complexity, to reduce it, to keep it, to saturate it with queries.”

With the first-person plural, Monson manages to write about the world through the lens of the self without being overly solipsistic, and about the self through the lens of the world without being totally annoying. This is just one of the author’s attempts to move beyond “the singular authority of ‘I’ in nonfiction, the essayistic ‘I'”—in other words, the conventional narrating I that uses conventional techniques without much consideration for how the forms affect (and effect, as in “bring about”) content. Monson addresses this very problem in the opening essay, “Voir Dire.”

While a man named Michael Jordan is on trial for “uttering and publishing”—forging a check, more or less—Monson spends his time as jury foreman ruminating on witness, recollection, verification, and proof: “We trust consensus, experience, and common sense, as the prosecuting attorney reminds us in voir dire: we can judge what is credible and what is not by the manner in which it is told and the person who tells it.” In a trial, Monson concludes, just as in memoir, truth is reconstructed through storytelling and rhetoric, and that seems, somehow, not quite right.

We have plenty of excellent, smart memoirs that address this problem, and the best of them embody it or examine it through form. The question of how to narrate experience accurately yet artfully is closely tied to what might be termed Monson’s Second Problem of Memoir, and where the memoir-as-trial falls apart: A trial, unlike almost all books, always has real-world consequences. “How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the nonfiction I read (and perhaps write), I wonder? How often is there actual risk involved, invoked?” That “invoked” is exemplary of the prose of Vanishing Point: sentences roil and roll on past their natural ending point, usually including near-synonyms that are also near-homonyms; the effect is somewhat like reading a more mellifluous Henry James—James as slam poet, maybe.

Monson’s answer to the Second Problem is to disclose real-world sins and mistakes, such as a breach of protocol at the trial that could, through its revelation here, create “a crack in the conviction that might be used to appeal it and possibly to stick it to me, legally.” What seems to bother Monson is that storytelling applies artifice to truth, but at the same time is absolutely dependent upon that artifice. Monson, like most of us, wants that artifice: “Telling is performing, even if it seems effortless… given the endless possibilities of the sentence on the page, I expect to see a little fucking craft. I guess I want awareness, a sense that the writer has reckoned with the self, the material, as well what it means to reveal it.” And yet that gloss of craft seems to somehow negate any “possible real-world consequence.”

Monson’s solution is to restate the question, basically, by using many, many narrative techniques to examine what it means to write “I,” to tell all. The final effect is considerable, especially for such a slim book. These techniques—which include “Assembloirs,” short essays made up of quotes from hundreds of memoirs—are attempts at “finding, creating, or uncovering another subject—something else to rely on and parse beyond the self.” This all evokes the recent hubbub over David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, in which Shields argues that memoir’s capacity for overt formal invention is both awesomely large and largely unexplored. Vanishing Point, like any number of recent memoirs, gives the lie to the second part of this thesis; for Monson, invention becomes a way to rip to shreds the notion that narrative can authentically represent reality. And invention then becomes a way to think about what those shreds do represent.

If you flip open Vanishing Point to its more-or-less center, you will find two pages covered in the word “Me.” You couldn’t be faulted for finding this silly. And yet in the context of the book itself—in the context of thinking really, really hard about the problems of memoirs—this repetition becomes thought-provoking, profound, moving, and awesomely large.

Glenn Lester has taught at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he also earned his MFA and edited The Greensboro Review. His writing has appeared in StorySouth, The 2nd Hand, Juked, elimae, and elsewhere. He lives in Kansas City, MO. More from this author →