I once heard someone described as a "compensating narcissist." The speaker meant that the person in question was a total narcissist, but kept trying to make up for it by showing an interest in others.
So it is with memoirs. I think they work best by compensating a bit. By being ostensibly about something outside of the writer. The memoir, I think, functions best in disguise. Here are some of my favorite memoirs, all of which work on this model:
- Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. Ostensibly about soccer but really about Nick Hornby.
- The Importance of Music to Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw. Ostensibly about music but really about Lavinia Greenlaw.
- About Alice by Calvin Trillin. A book by a man about his wife which turns out really to be about the man.
But my favorite of this genre is Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. Sometimes I suspect this might be the greatest book ever written. I mean, obviously Anna Karenina is better. But there's something about the sheer balls of this book that thrills and inspires me anew every time I read it. Maybe it is, instead, the most helpful book ever written. At least for me. I can't think of another book that gets me quite this worked up about the possibilities of writing. Out of Sheer Rage is a memoir/critical study/travelogue about D.H. Lawrence. The book opens with Dyer attempting to write a scholarly Lawrence book, and at the same time thinking maybe he should write a novel. He works simultaneously on the two projects, distracted by each, toggling back and forth between two empty computer files.
Of course, the very notion of the Lawrence study is a MacGuffin. Dyer never really meant to write it, as he admits here. Fast forward to 1:49 and hear his confession.
In pursuit of this nonexistent but compelling goal, Out of Sheer Rage becomes a hilarious meditation on the pointlessness of literary genre. It's a biography of Lawrence that tells you more than you ever wanted to know about Dyer. (Also, any book that refers to Julia Kristeva as "that old trout" has something going for it.)
Given the fact that I myself have written a pretty irreverent book about yoga, you would think that my favorite Dyer book might be Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. As far as I can tell, the project of that book involves Dyer proving that he can go to as many raves as he likes, in as many countries as he likes, with as many soulfully beautiful girls as he likes, even though he is unequivocally too old. Probably they are not even called raves anymore. How would I know what they're called? Let us just say "outdoor parties." Anyway, as much as I wanted to love it, its essential fatuousness eventually wore me out. And there's a revelatory essay set at Burning Man, to which I say "Pah."
Out of Sheer Rage, on the other hand, is a gigantic hall pass. It freed me in a way I never expected. (Is anyone freed in the way they expected? Probably not.) Write about yourself as much as you like. Just make sure you behave as though you're writing about something else. Eventually I came to write a book about something else (yoga) that was really a book about me. Compensating narcissist that I am.