Wednesday, July 17, 2024

“Consent,” by Jill Ciment, and “Change,” by Édouard Louis, Reviewed

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On time, as anticipated, they have returned, tunnelling into view, leaving their sooty signature. Pale in the sudden light, they fan and flutter their wings. It’s time to sing. Me, they sing. Me, again.

Cicada season has come and gone; it is another class of organism I refer to, in the throes of a parallel drama of ceremonial unwrapping and full-throated song of the self. As if compelled by biological imperatives of their own, these writers—serial memoirists, they’re sometimes called—burst forth with regularly timed tales of tribulation, of molting, of transformation. And each time they tell us they have it figured out. This time, they’ve got the real story for us, the real handle on themselves, on what it’s all about. It’s about living with the ambiguity. Accepting the light and the dark. It’s about (the serial memoirist will say, without a whisper of irony) other people.

To be fair, memoirs have exhibited a tendency to multiply ever since Augustine recalled pocketing those pears. His “Confessions,” which began appearing around 397 C.E., were spread out over thirteen books, each conceived as a distinct unit. In his wake, heavy hitters have included Diana Athill, Shirley MacLaine, Maya Angelou, and Augusten Burroughs, each of whom has produced a proper shelf of memoirs. At work, and advancing: Leslie Jamison, Mary Karr, Lauren Slater.

From time to time, what necessitates a new installment is a dramatic development in the author’s life. After writing a memoir about her parents, Dani Shapiro learned that the man who raised her was not her biological father. Back to the desk and out with another draft, “Inheritance” (2019). (It’s about living with the ambiguity.) More often, however, these accounts are dispatches from ordinary life, and frequently about middle age: reports of the birth of a child, worry for the child, divorce and love again, this secret, those ghosts, my parent is sick, my friend is sick, I am sick, I have an armful of regret, I have these memories of my father’s voice, what to do with the too much and too little of it all. A stack of such memoirs might be distilled down to the title of Athill’s 2015 volume: “Alive, Alive Oh!”

They can give off a particular scent, these serial memoirs—embarrassment mingling with self-regard. The self is merely source material, the memoirist protests, pink-cheeked; the life merely what is at hand for the staging of larger questions of memory, ethics—Cézanne painting his apples and rewriting the laws of perspective, etc. There will be little of the playfulness and blunt candor of, say, HBO’s “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” in which Carmichael, a comedian, arranges for a camera crew to follow him, documenting his infidelities, therapy sessions, breakdowns. When a friend protests that Carmichael seems less interested in the truth than in being “masturbatorially public,” he does not deny it. More often, to sell copies or to justify the necessity of another installment, the writer doubles down on the importance of the new story—she’s finally surfaced the defining trauma, finally seized the defining insight.

But a small, seditious group of serial memoirists complicate the endeavor. Here, one book follows another not as its sequel but as its unmaking. These writers unravel their own stories, enumerate the costs and consequences of the act of narration, with an avid, unsparing eye for distortion and error. In 2000, Emily Fox Gordon published a memoir of her decades of psychiatric care, beginning when she was a teen-ager, called “Mockingbird Years.” Part of a wave of therapy memoirs, including “Prozac Nation” and “Girl, Interrupted,” the book was well received. Ten years later, Gordon renounced it, in “Book of Days.” The first book, she said, was a lie—of a particular kind, a lie forced by the form itself. “Everything that I say happened in my memoir happened, and happened more or less when I said it did: no fact checker could catch me out,” she said. “I wrote from an impossibly posthumous point of view, as if I knew the final truth of my life—as if I were confident that nothing that happened in the future might yet revise it.”

Gordon felt that she could not separate her sense of self from what she had written; she felt ensnared in her own words, stunned into silence: “For two years after Mockingbird Years was published, I struggled to disentangle the triumphant narrative self of my memoir from my necessarily nontriumphant real self. I lost touch with my real past, and consequently lost access to the future; I was unable to live and consequently unable to write.”

They are restless creatures, these books, so often stained with shame. Two new ones join the pack: Jill Ciment’s “Consent” and Édouard Louis’s “Change.” (Louis’s accounts of his life have been published as autobiographical fiction, and he insists that everything he writes is true.) I suspect that the ranks of such books will only grow, with the current mood of rapid reconsideration, of reckonings of individuals and institutions, as we ask how present knowledge inflects the past, and vice versa: What do I call what happened to me? What did I know then, and what am I to do now? What story am I to carry forward?

Beneath the tablecloth, a faint silhouette of a horse’s legs, mid-stride. Behind a copse of trees, children at play. “Pentimento,” from the Italian pentirsi—to repent, change one’s mind—is the term for the ghostly emergence of something painted over, obscured, an error perhaps. With time, the paint fades. Behind the steady calm on a portrait sitter’s face, another expression reveals itself.

Jill Ciment’s new book, “Consent,” is an account of her marriage to the painter Arnold Mesches, told largely through a rereading of her 1996 memoir, “Half a Life.” She traces evidence of pentimento in those pages, looking for what her narration occluded and what the years have made visible, what she is finally able to confront. “What do I call him?” Ciment begins. “My husband? Arnold? I would if the story were about how we met and married, shared meals for forty-five years, raised a puppy, endured illnesses. But if the story is about an older man preying on a teenager, should I call him ‘the artist’ or, better still, ‘the art teacher,’ with all that the word teacher implies?”

Ciment was sixteen years old when they met. She was driving home from school when she noticed a painting hanging in a gallery window. She stopped the car and got out for a better look. “Under a sheen of varnish, a pile of toys—rag dolls, fire trucks, tin soldiers—appeared to be made out of motion and life,” she writes in “Half a Life.” “When I cupped my eye to the window glass to find the source of the painting’s intensity, the toys imploded into sheer pigment.” Whatever that power was, Ciment wanted it. The woman in the gallery mentioned that the painter was her husband. And he gave lessons.

In “Half a Life,” Ciment portrayed herself as a scrappy, sensitive girl trying to escape her hurricane of a home, dominated by a father prone to cruelty and inexplicable compulsive behaviors. Arnold, the art teacher, appears late in the story, an older man, forty-seven years old, whom Ciment, as she tells it, is determined to seduce, never mind his wife and two children.

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