Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading Vanishing Point, by Ander Monson, again. I’ve read this book several times even though it’s only been out a couple of months for a few reasons. The first is that I can’t quite qualify what Ander’s doing. He seems to me to be teaching how to think about nonfiction. It’s a theoretical book in a lot of ways. How to we remember, how do we misremember, in what way do collective memories trump individual memories, how do we think and record memories and does writing them down trump everything? In the first essay/chapter, Ander writes about being vetted by lawyers before serving on a jury. The idea of whole truth and nothing but the truth isn’t investigated in some philosopher’s declarative sentences but through the lens of his mother’s death. But this is where I have trouble getting to how the book works: it’s not a memoir, as the cover of the book asserts. His mother’s death is not an intimate lens through which to look at memory, it’s an ontological one. How can we remember anyone’s death? We get close to Ander’s personal narrative for a minute and then the text pulls us in the other direction—the essay is about truth remember, not mothers, not death and certainly not Ander. It’s a tricky system, since obviously what we like about memoir is that we get to know someone. What we don’t like about memoir is that it’s an easy familiarity that disappears as soon as the book is over. In Ander’s book, we get to know him a little but that knowing him a little leads to thinking about things like memory and truth a lot, which lasts longer than the quick friendship of memoir and is ultimately more rewarding.Visit Nicole Walker's website and blog.
I also recently read Carrier, Untangling the Danger in My DNA by Bonnie Rough. I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I read her essay in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007. That essay was revolutionary in the way it traced the circularity of shells as it traced the helices of DNA. The book is not as revolutionary. It is a pretty straightforward memoir about a genetic disorder called HED, although she employs, and makes clear we understand that she is employing, fiction to re-imagine what her grandfather, who lived with HED, suffered. The personal narrative carries the reader along. As she wonders if she’s a carrier for this disease, whether she should continue with a pregnancy that shows the baby would be born with HED, and how her future children and grandchildren will cope with this disease, I was caught up in her questions. I read the book in two days. Unlike her essay in Best American, Carrier is not a great metaphor for how DNA defines us. It’s not a book about lyrical riffs in nature. It’s not a book how nonfiction works. It is though a smart and compelling book that reminded me why personal narrative is so intriguing. I can understand why she didn’t follow in the vein of the Best American essay. Although to me that theoretical, lyrical writing is more challenging and critically interesting, to make a book work for a larger audience, following the personal narrative of a family beset by a particular disease makes sense.