AS I LEFT a midday yoga class, the woman in the lobby ahead of me was already on her cell phone. "You know how to drain the Jacuzzi?" she asked whoever was on the other end. The book the woman held, along with her bag, car keys and towel, was Frank McCourt's first memoir, Angela's Ashes. It could just as well have been McCourt's sequel, Tis, Jennifer Lauck's Blackbird, Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, or maybe even Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. No time feels more right for indulging in a memoir of tragic childhood than the middle of an economic and technological boom and from the safe, successful vantage point of a luxurious adult existence.
Open Angela's Ashes to any page and you'll find a calculated mix of death and innocence, confusion, sweetness, humor and foreboding. "While Bridey and Mrs. Hannon are helping Mam to the bed I notice spots of blood on her chair. Is my mother bleeding to death? Is it all right to say, Look, there's blood on Mam's chair? No, you can't say anything, the grown-up people will tell you, Never mind, you're always gawking, none of your business, go out and play."
McCourt's is among the most high-profile of charming, award-winning stories of abuse, neglect, drugs, racism, poverty, alcoholic husbands, oppression, despair and a complete lack of birth control. It's one of many guided literary tours through the rough underbelly of a less privileged life. By creating an atmosphere of vicarious exposure to the exotic internal landscape of intense suffering, the genre of memoir has come to serve as a sort of intellectual theme park of literature--the theme generally being great tribulations and what Rust Hills once called "spunky runts." It's a vacationer's wild ride, and it's no coincidence that publicists use phrases such as "a roller coaster of loss and loneliness" to sell the books.
I recently spoke with Joe Rohde, one of the masterminds behind Disney's Animal Kingdom--an actual theme park set on an island off Florida. Rohde helped turn a former cow pasture into a reproduction of four sites: Africa, Asia, a land of Dinosaurs, and a community of Disney characters. He considers a theme park to be a narrative environment. If you walk into the African section, the story that should unfold must be convincingly about Africa, while the nearby Asian quadrant should tell a consistent story of Asia. As with an authoritative memoir, success is in timing and the accumulation of convincingly authentic detail.
According to Rohde, "Nothing exists in a narrative environment without meaning. There's no actual randomness." Every chipped wooden sign recreated from Katmandu and each carefully placed rock contributes to the desired illusion, or theme, of the park. The same is true of memoir. Rather than relaying an entire life and personal history of psychoanalysis, memoir is a collection of salient detail used to construct a compelling narrative arc, meeting expectations of delivery and form.
The type of theme park Rohde creates is meant to realistically replicate the world. Part of the former cow pasture now appears as a vast African plain. Cars full of visitors are released over the land at a rate of one every thirty-five seconds, and as long as traffic keeps moving, each car is hidden from the next. "Wild" animals roam confined areas. Initially, all details of the park conformed to a standard of authenticity, until it became clear that visitors needed a few less authentic guideposts.
"Visitors were lost," Rohde said. They were more than willing to enter into the constructed narrative, but confused within the fabricated structure, losing sight of the real world of restrooms within the fantasy version of Africa.
Visitors are predisposed to accept the illusion because they want to believe they're experiencing an exotic place. This is the heart of the success of memoir. Memoir caters to a reader's desire to gain experience that might alter the internal landscape, while maintaining a safe distance from the actual significant events. We want to witness tragedy and deprivation, but also to know at all times where the exit signs are, the restrooms, and the way back to our own world.
According to Rohde, "There's an exhaustion with plot structures versus the appeal of spontaneity. And, there's a desire for a certain degree of predictability, even in the midst of adventure." While theme parks are growing increasingly "real," or "wild," wilderness-survival vacations are correspondingly becoming more crafted. Culturally, we're in the middle of experiencing a collapse. As Rohde put it, "The user requirements of reality are being fed by the requirements of artificiality."
Memoir is well suited to navigate this collapse. Having sprung from real life, memoir implies the spontaneity of living, while ideally meeting the expectations of crafted storytelling. At times in All Souls, Michael Patrick MacDonald veers dangerously out of the realm of memoir, into journalism, by delivering material as an experienced adult social worker: "People from Southie nonprofits had told me that they were constantly denied funding because their population was not diverse." The reader is treated like an outsider needing to be informed rather than as a witness at the underprivileged child's side. The experience becomes less "real," less of a drive through an artificial safari, and more pre-processed. At the same time, the facts become more directly connected with the world we live in. The reader is asked to consider bringing about social change, rather than merely enjoy the child/author's ability to have survived. The exit signs, the way back to the privileged world, are less clear.
Speaking from his years of experience working between the public and Disney, Rohde said, "Ultimately, the only real journey is internal. Our past colors our environment and us--all we see is an internal thing, oneself." He said, "Horseback riding in Mongolia, for example, has become more tame now. But it's about the meaning of riding Mongolian horses to the rider, not the wilderness or artificiality of the experience. People who craft narratives must understand what this means internally."
Those marketing memoirs do seem to understand: There are a wealth of readers who want the consistency of a theme park, the clear beginning and end of a short ride, with the illusion of being let in on a private life to witness somebody else's desperate, though endearing and possibly prize-winning, struggle.