Tuesday, January 26, 2010

brief, memory

The new Brevity is online. The two standouts for me are Jennifer Percy and Paul Lisicky.

I don't think I've read anything by Lisicky that I didn't immediately like. Also, he's a total dreamboat. And I was feeling this essay, getting in the groove of it, when I got to the penultimate paragraph, which includes this:

"Maybe that’s what my father already knew back then. And maybe that’s why he brought it up at the dinner table thirty years later, though I’d forgotten it, as I’d forgotten many things by then. His eyes looked through me, past me. He spoke as if that memory were just one more thing he’d been wearing around his neck..."

Ok, yeah, sure, it's beautifully rendered, just like the rest of the essay. And it's meaningful and poignant and appropriate. But is anyone else tired of (narrative, personal) essays that bring up memory and forgetting? Especially at important or climactic moments? I understand that essays lend themselves to considerations of memory, but when an essay goes in that direction I get turned off, bored. If only because so many essays feel the need to scratch that itch, as though it hasn't been scratched already, probably by that same author, in that same collection/issue, whatever. It's starting to feel like an empty gesture.

Anyone else getting tired of this? Am I just being bitchy? Maybe a better question, are there some recent essays that bring memory to the forefront in a new way?


  1. Although the idea of memory is more or less essential to nonfiction, I'm with you that the conscious struggle with it is played out as hell.

    I'm trying to think of a good example, but I'm coming up blank.

  2. There's an interesting essay/iteration of moves contemporary poets make on HTML Giant which is kind of awesome:
    . I mention because this is indeed one of the moves that essayists seem to make these days (present company included perhaps). It irritates me too when it happens as the crux/climax of the essay because it does feel somehow default. It might be an interesting idea to compile a list of Moves in Contemporary Essays, if only for those of us who essay contemporarily to be aware of them and make sure they're intentional in our own work, that we're not just doing it by default.

  3. urg, how about if I just post it here: htmlgiant.com/craft-notes/moves-in-contemporary-poetry/

  4. T

    I’ve been thinking about read your post, and your thoughts on how frequently personal/narrative essays make the move towards memory, with the implicit understanding that memory is faulty etc, and how that ground is kind of well-trodden. That's something I also have noticed, though I didn't exactly think it out so clearly as you. I more kind of sensed it as a default mode. But yeah, I think maybe you're right; often when there is a chance to really get somewhere, essayists just sort of shrug their shoulders and say, "all I have is memory, and memory is like [insert metaphor for something unreliable]."

    The other problem, I think, is that referencing memory tends to hijack an essay, and whenever the essayists brings up memory, the essay becomes about memory, rather than whatever was happening before.

    Which is sort of what seems to happen in Lisicky’s piece. To me, the whole thing seemed to be about sexuality: the hand over the crotch, the stuff about shame, the spanking, the father many years later admitting he was wrong. The simple fact that the pillory was punishment for sexual crimes. But then, in the paragraph you mention, memory appears, and the essay sort of becomes about memory. What we forget, what we remember, and how events change depending on what we remember. There’s a David Foster Wallace story (I can’t recall the name) in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men that seems to follow this same format. A son suddenly remembers his father waggling his penis in his face, and mentions it to the father, who doesn’t remember, and the narrator eventually comes to terms that memory is faulty and they reconcile. And there, like in the Lisicky piece, the question of why that penis was waggling is never confronted, because the question of memory obviates it.

    I really wonder how this Lisicky piece might have read if the question of memory didn’t soften it. Like, forget memory. Jump-cut thirty years: “Hey son, remember all those years ago, when you were just coming to terms with your sexuality, and I humiliated you in front of a crowd? I’ve changed my mind about the appropriateness of that.” And then the essayist could really confront that head-on. Or whatever big difficult question that raises. Basically, I think memory can be a really poignant move, but it can also be a way out.

    Perhaps you’re tired of the memory thing, not because somehow memory is played-out, but because essayists too frequently use it to obscure or evade the more unwieldy questions posed by their work.

  5. yes, to the list of moves in contemporary essay. let's do it.

    david, yeah, i think that's a large part of it. hijacking is a good way to describe what happens. i'm lulled into the essay and then, what the fuck, it's about memory? even if just in part, i'm bored. i would always prefer to hear further thoughts on the wagging penis.