“This Is the End of Memoirs for Me”

Susanna Kaysen and the material of a writer’s life.

Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff.

Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff

What is the price of writing a good memoir? For Susanna Kaysen, it is that for the rest of her life anyone writing about her (including me) will have to lead by mentioning that she is the author of Girl, Interrupted. An instant best-seller when it was published in 1993, the episodic, disjointed, very self-consciously literary memoir of Kaysen’s teenage institutionalization became a sensation. And then: a movie starring Winona Ryder, one that won someone you might have heard of—Angelina Jolie—an Oscar.

You might even think of Girl, Interrupted as Kaysen’s first book—something about a memoir of late adolescence always suggests a first book—but it was actually Kaysen’s third. She had written two novels, Asa, As I Knew Him and Far Afield. And sure, both of them were well and respectably received with short notices in good newspapers. This was nothing like the fanfare that attended Girl. Susan Cheever wrote a glowing, splashy review in the New York Times Book Review, calling the book “triumphantly funny” and lauding its closeness to Cheever’s own sense of the glamor of institutions like McLean, the Massachusetts hospital that had housed Kaysen and also Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. It was the kind of review that ought to come with some kind of disclaimer for the author, like, “WARNING: YOU WILL SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE TALKING ABOUT THIS BOOK.”

Kaysen responded with some ambivalence to it all, at the time, telling the Times in a short feature accompanying the review:

I didn’t understand the fascination with autobiography. Take that and add the loony bin, you get a strangely non-literary response. The reaction I’m getting has nothing to do with the book. The attention is on me as a person, not as a writer.

The movie rights would sell anyway, a few days later. But it’s hard not to read rebellion into the fact Kaysen’s next book, The Camera My Mother Gave Me, was a memoir about vaginal pain, a less market-friendly subject overall. And by the time she was on the publicity tour for that one, she was in full-fledged rejection of the genre that made her name: “But I tell you, this is the end of memoirs for me. There are too many of them. People think they’re real but they’re not. They’re just as full of self-deception and occlusion as a novel.”

All of this is by way of saying that you might indeed enjoy the new book Kaysen has out, a slim, elegant little novel called Cambridge. I certainly did. But it comes with all this baggage. It is not a book, I think, that operates in a space entirely distinct from that context. Knowing the backstory enhances your understanding of the story itself. Is that a criticism? I am agnostic as to whether it actually constitutes a flaw. The experience of reading Cambridge feels like settling back into a warm chair after an absence. The atmosphere is so pleasant that you forget you got up for weeks, or months, or years.

Plot-wise, Cambridge tells the story of a girl growing up in the 1950s, largely in the American Cambridge, though she also spends time with her family in London, and Florence, and eventually Greece too, for good measure. The protagonist is about 7 when we meet her and about 12, just having started her period, when we leave her. She is brought to us by the calm, mediated voice of an adult narrator looking on in later years. Her childhood, as so told, is a largely uneventful one, though it is marked by moments of extraordinary perception. Early on, we’re told, the precocious young heroine falls in love with a statue of St. George near a grain market:

Lots of other saints and heroes stood nearby, but he was striking for his straight, upright beauty: Saint George, the patron of England, emblazoned on flags and walls and letterheads there, but never looking like this.

For one thing, no dragon. The dragon was understood. This was a post-slaying portrait.

That is a remarkable bit of art appreciation for a child. But throughout the book the narrator is presented not so much as a well-spoken child as she is an adult reflecting on childhood. When hormones set in they are described with the lucidity and clarity of one who remembers them, not one presently experiencing them:

It came in waves, a death-wave of not-feeling, not-seeing, not-caring. … I’d  come back from these death dives with a shred of memory, like of my father putting me to bed when I was four. A little memory. He used to sing to me. He couldn’t sing at all. It was croaking.

But sometimes the narrator tries to pull one over on her audience and insist that this isn’t the gloss imposed by time and distance. Of the little memory, for example:

Thinking of these things now, in fourth grade, I felt they had happened to somebody else. I wasn’t that person anymore. I could make myself teary by singing “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road” to myself, and I would do that, to try to be once again the little girl in the bed, with the tuneless father sitting by. But it didn’t work.

Fiction gives Kaysen the power to jump around in time like this, to see what a fourth-grader is thinking perhaps more clearly than a fourth-grader possibly could. But she does not always wield the freedom well. The jumps in time and verb tense are not always as elegant as they should be. And that reads clearly, I think, as the mark of a memoirist trying to push a memoir through the funnel of fiction and coming out with a mishmash of techniques, up to and including the narrator’s disjointed sense of time. In the aggregate you do, however, get a beautiful, funny, perceptive memoir. I mean, novel.

Author Susanna Kaysen.
Author Susanna Kaysen.

Courtesy of Michael Lionstar

In fact the traces of memoir are everywhere in Cambridge, and the signals are fairly explicit. The narrator is named “Susanna,” just like the author. She has a similar childhood. We are given details, like the precise time frame in which one of her father’s colleagues would go on to win the Nobel, which seem to be deliberately leading the reader to step outside the text and fact-check her. In other words, although all fiction—hell, all writing—could be called covert autobiography on some level, there is not much cloak-and-dagger here. The advertising copy on the book actually calls this a “novel-from-life.”

That’s a catchall term for novels as different as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, but it can be a rewarding genre for readers—and for writers, who can find a kind of comfort in this classification that so happily sidesteps all those thorny James Frey-ish questions about the distance between reality and art. It can feel like a cop-out at times, because it allows the author to disclaim any responsibility to the cold hard facts while still lending the work the apparently irresistible allure of a true story.

I bristle a bit at the way the genre allows writers to both have and eat cake, but these novels-from-life, like Cambridge, often contain their own brand of wisdom. They are books whose use of the techniques of fiction seems to have an almost political purpose: namely, to make mundane realities seem, well, worth inscribing in print. And there is something very noble, I think, about insisting that there is art in those experiences we would not necessarily call novelistic. And in then being totally honest about the way in which we tend to shape and revise the stories we tell ourselves. In Cambridge’s case, for example, it results in a book with a beautiful sort of narrative ambivalence about what the narrator calls a not-wonderful childhood: “Now that it was over,” Kaysen writes, “I could turn the past into anything I wanted. I could revise the empty space inside me so that it had a better shape: the outline of a happy childhood.”

There is indeed something uniquely worth recording, I think, not just about one’s childhood, but about the way in which we spend our lives revising it into such outlines. Not everyone goes from unhappy apprehension to happy memory; it’s usually the other way around, in my experience. What looks normal and well-adjusted at 20 can, through the lens of warped romantic entanglements at 30, no longer look so rosy. (Let’s not even speak of 40.) Years after the fact, the meanings of the hushed conversations of adults become clear; the tears in your parents’ marriage are no longer shrouded by the faux-authority of adulthood. There is, after all, “self-deception and occlusion” in everyday life, too. And it takes you a lifetime to grow out from your family’s particular brand of it.

Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen. Knopf.

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