THE ASPIRATIONS OF YOUTH seldom play out as our younger selves imagine, the paths of life less direct, more painful, utterly different from our dreams, whether in the best of ways or more quotidian ones. Good, bad, in between, indifferent. With this question of dreams and dreams deferred begins Blake Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned, “a family portrait.”
Bailey, a biographer of considerable repute, having written complex, well-rounded portraits of literary masters Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates), John Cheever (Cheever: A Life), and Charles Jackson (Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson), here turns his hand for the first time to memoir. His prose arrives polished and compelling on the level of the sentence. He has a keen eye for detail and gives a largely unblinking look at each of his parents, his brother, and himself. Bailey’s brother, Scott, is the core of this story, the difficult baby who may or may not have come forth from the womb already poised to vex his family. Whether our paths are set from birth (and one thinks not), or evolve in complex combinations of inborn character and genes, environment and events, relationships and chance, Scott’s trajectory continued in not-quite-linear fashion from the sweetness of childhood through years marked by increasingly troubled behavior, interlocked with drug and alcohol abuse. This is Bailey’s story of Scott’s role in the family and unfortunate downward spiral.
In a video interview with The New York Times, Bailey describes the book as being, “about two brothers who were very similar and their paths —” and then the writer’s voice drops away and his hands take over, moving in opposing directions. He speaks of Scott’s “self-destructive personality,” describing it as “one that I felt this sort of dreadful affinity with,” a sentiment he shares in the book, as a young teenager. “The sight of Scott struck me dumb,” he writes. “I was terrified of turning into him.” The younger brother’s need to differentiate from the older recurs throughout the book, acting as a continuous undercurrent in the narrative. Scott had dreams — but we are led to understand they were unrealistic. Bailey, meanwhile, longs to be the good one, the favored son, in contrast to Scott; and, most of the time he is; keeping up with his studies and maintaining a more agile balance between school and recreational alcohol and drug use. His own dreams are stubbornly alive, yet muted: an urge to leave and an impulse toward self-preservation, more than any preformed notion of what he might strive to achieve.
Bailey-the-author seems muted, too, wary of stepping fully into his own narrative: in his life and in these pages. While Scott haunts the book — the prose and use of tense imply his absence, his death, well before we are to know any specifics — Bailey’s writerly presence is its own form of ghost; a biographer perhaps hesitant to fully inhabit his own story. Moreover, his other work — the biographies of Jackson, Cheever, and Yates, so central to his adult life and career — wend their ghostly way through this narrative, too.
The memoir’s largely sequential progression starts with the dreams of Bailey’s mother, Marlies, a “wistfully intellectual” woman, recently emigrated from Germany to New York City’s happening Greenwich Village, a location that will recur decades later in less savory circumstances. Marlies arrives at the dawn of the 1960s. (Not incidentally the subject of Bailey’s first book, a slim monograph simply titled Sixties, preceding the 2003 Yates biography by 11 years.) Marlies’s life is a “heady affair” when she meets Burck Bailey, a promising, “whip smart,” young man from Oklahoma enrolled at NYU Law School. But she is soon wrenched away from the charmed life of a young single woman in a city of possibilities, by pregnancy. Bailey does a remarkable job of not throwing the blame upon the mother for the failings of the child (a rather too easy and still too acceptable target). Marlies is, though, the first family member whose aspirations will be dashed. So long to those splendid plans. Here comes a baby instead.
Under the best of circumstances, the arrival of a new life demands adjustment, bringing with it sleep deprivation, too little time, and dwindling room for self-consideration. All of this comes on like a hailstorm, accompanied by an abundance of new experiences, and, one hopes, joy. Marlies relocates to Kansas City, and then to Burck’s home state of Oklahoma with her growing family. Through the 1970s and 1980s Marlies escapes the confines of domesticity by engaging with the local counterculture, including casual drug use, finding others who don’t fit into straightforward suburban norms, locating friends and compatriots in debauchery among the community’s foreign exchange students and gay men. This evidence of change and more open sexuality, which one might not quite have expected in Oklahoma City, is snuggled up alongside pop-up McMansions, Blake and Scott’s Catholic school, and Burck’s highly successful and straight-laced law career.
Initially, Scott is a charming child, and then a difficult child, in contrast to young Blake, who followed three years later. But contrasts are deceptive. The book demands and instructs us to accept this, all the while presenting us with recurring dichotomies: of personality, of result, of the living and the dead. Death remains interstitial for much of the book: the most important reality — for one senses the book would not exist without Scott’s death; this looming absence acts as engine of the book’s momentum — and yet the emotions surrounding Scott’s death, and the suicide’s aftermath, are barely touched upon.
In Bailey’s introduction to Charles Jackson’s autobiographical novel, The Lost Weekend, reissued last year in tandem with Bailey’s biography of Jackson, he writes:
But of course the author understood that there was more to addiction than narcissistic escapism; indeed, many addicts (especially among the comfortable middle class) begin life, at least, as peculiarly lovable, promising human beings — all too aware, later, of the heartbreak they cause.
Bailey continues, explaining “an insidious cycle of remorse that can either save or destroy the alcoholic; that is, either shame him into stopping once and for all, or goad him into further escape and final destruction.” Early in The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake writes of his young self:
I was aware that my parents found Scott more interesting, but it didn’t bother me much. I took the long view, finding insidious ways to assert my own specialness. For one thing I affected to be a great reader and would bother my mother about ordering books from the catalogs we got at school […]. In general, I was on the lookout for ways to capitalize on my brother’s failings.
Young Blake senses that he may possess firmer ground — a more solid ego — to stand on.
I in turn was pleased with my own modesty, and something else: a sense that my brother wouldn’t always be the golden boy. In his preening I detected a little protesting-too-much, an inkling that his luck was running out even then, at least in comparison with his hard-headed brother.
It is difficult to identify how much of this is hindsight, which the book shies away from. Instead, the narrative has a quality of inevitability — as though what one sees as patterns, or understands after the fact, has already shaped the life to come, in advance of the next twists and turns. This is a fine quality for instilling narrative tension, but it begs questions about Bailey’s presentation of the progression of events as a foregone conclusion — an effective technique in fiction, but more problematic in life-writing. Bailey soon adds, “I liked my brother and he liked me.”
Bailey, modeling Scott and feeling a shifting culture closing in around him, dabbles in drugs during high school and dulls the difficulties of adolescence with alcohol. He is careful not to tip into the abandon of his brother, though. While his college years bring more intense and longer bouts of drink, a pattern that continues afterward, he buckles down in his final year, completing an honors thesis on Walker Percy, affirmed by his advisor as “a model of the form.”
Back in Oklahoma City after a stint in DC following college, Bailey’s passive risk-taking intensifies. He nearly burns down his apartment as he sleeps, a cooking pot smoldering and sparking on the burner, followed by a collision, Bailey asleep at the wheel. Instead of continuing in this vein — “I daresay I might have managed to kill myself” — he gets out of town, writing appreciatively of his brother:
Through all of this, my brother was a comfort to me. He was perhaps the one person on earth who genuinely admired me — was even somewhat in awe: he thought I was “brilliant” because I’d graduated from a decent college with honors, or perhaps because I’d done so in spite of being laden with many of the same flaws that had made his own life such a dreary business.
While Bailey relies on this warming brotherly rapport, he notes ways in which he continues to condescend to Scott, a pattern begun as Scott entered adolescence. When Scott serves in the Marines, producing a stabilizing effect, Bailey writes of Scott’s role as a radio deejay, criticizing his “wooden” style. Bailey attributes this characteristic to Scott being “mindful of his privilege — his own show! — to an almost morbid degree, such that he was cautious not to make any risky remark, to give any hint of an unbalanced nature.” This “unbalanced nature” is abundantly illustrated, details and stories precisely and fetchingly told, but rather little is done to actively address it, within the scope of the narrative or as the brother-writer looks back and frames events. The family consistently runs up against this: what to do? Sometimes it is easier not to keep visiting and revisiting the question. Bailey’s father, while troubled by Scott and his spiral, periodically called in or electing to intervene, moves on with his life, remarrying and enjoying fruits of his successes. In one instance of intervention, Burck goes to New York, where Scott had returned after dropping out of NYU, to retrieve his son from living in a “squalid tenement.”
My father told me about this visit only once, some twenty years later, and I may be misremembering certain details. By then we spoke of Scott once or twice a year, while a kind of gas filled the room until we could barely breathe unless we changed the subject.
This sort of inability pervades the story and the narrative, at times in the form of floundering self-flagellation. In West Palm Beach, after escaping the temptations of his hometown once again, “I began to fancy myself a kind of knockabout intellectual à la Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road [Yates’s first novel, like Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, autobiographical], and thus I contrived to feel superior to certain old friends who’d surrendered themselves to the rat race. At bottom I was a failure and knew it better than anybody.”
Bailey’s mother takes her detour earlier, when, as described, she escapes into the local counterculture of restaurant workers, foreign exchange students, drugs, and sex during her sons’ late childhood and adolescence; later she goes back to school, obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees, living some of this time in another city. Years later, though, she will be the family member most sucked into Scott’s orbit, his needs for attention, for money, for help in multiple forms. We see Marlies grow increasingly helpless, her young son now a man who cannot be counted on to keep his word, prone to bullying in the midst of self-loathing and substance abuse.
Periodically, as noted, Bailey implies we are learning about someone who is gone; though any melancholic mood that might attach to this state of affairs is so restrained as to be barely perceptible; the narration relying on humor where possible, often dry, and sometimes half-strangulated. Bailey carries us along; the accumulating details of family disasters, divorce, escapade after escapade where Scott comes off badly, taking excessive risks, begging for attention, drugs and more drugs — the high school stoner who ends up with a crack pipe and a heroin habit — even more booze. But some core is absent. Bailey, throughout his narrative, makes clear a deep and abiding love for his brother, and in the early years, the respectful regard of a younger sibling, despite the competitive one-upmanship: who will be the better son? But the book’s heart feels chilly.
Memoir is a questing and questioning genre. Based on memory, after all, it demands a degree of uncertainty, even as it strives all the while to find solid ground to stand on, to make sense where sense has disappeared — narrative, the memoir promises, surely narrative will help retrieve or create what is or has been absent. Bailey, however, never seems to doubt that the events he relates were anything but inevitable. Never questions his own story. We do not experience (distinct from intuiting), in these pages, a writer struggling to make sense. To make sense of a wasted life; to make sense of a family too often turned acrimonious; to make sense of Scott. Instead we often find a sort of quantifying, or accumulation, of resignation. Of course the book exists, in part, to pull together Bailey’s memories of Scott, the escapades, the relationships, the dids and didn’ts of their parents. In gathering these details and gluing them together, a trajectory emerges. Bailey speaks to The New York Times of “the material” and how it “dictates the emphasis that you give to certain themes.” Yes, but the details and scenes we weave together can do two things: Affirm what we already believe, supporting foregone conclusions. Or, they can push us forward; we can find and make new patterns, sometimes against our wishes; and we can ask ourselves questions about remembered actions and emotions, our own and others’. The Splendid Things We Planned avoids — elides — any what-ifs.
Details present a picture; they create the characters — real people here, of course — on the page. Some details must be left out; indeed, the details presented speak more forcefully when shaped and chosen — this is the forte of a skilled writer and of thoughtful editing. However, when certain details, certain interrogations, are not present, is it because the reader is being asked to draw his or her own conclusion? Or are there elephants right there in the room that the narrative dare not approach too intimately — here, most specifically, mental illness, homosexuality, and guilt — and if so, why not?
A psychiatrist and family friend, Dr. Hauber, suggests that Scott, then in his early 30s, is a paranoid schizophrenic. Bailey rejects this. At various points in the narrative, family members urge Scott to seek psychiatric help, resulting in only one significant hospitalization (and no indication of meaningful counseling), by which point everyone seems fed up and Scott so hostile as to be unapproachable. “Dr. Hauber’s verdict, along with certain other events, helped validate my father’s previous opinion that Scott was hopeless, and by the following summer he was back in the outer darkness again.”
That judgment of “hopeless” is surely difficult to write, more difficult, in a way, to read. Because what are we to make of it? There is little interrogation of Scott’s deeper underlying issues, or questioning of a culture or community that encourages ignorance and blindness. Scott’s life begins, continues, and ends as a series of misbehaviors, oddities, insecurities, occasional narcissisms; deep unmet needs, exacerbated and masked, in fairly equal measures, by drugs and alcohol used to excess. Bailey deftly describes detailed scenes of over-the-top behavior — Scott hanging from a flagpole; Scott standing on the family roof with a younger stepbrother’s bicycle, preparing to ride the vehicle over the edge into the swimming pool (which he remarkably accomplishes with little injury) — along with exposition of Scott’s persistent, increasing, and intensifying ambiguous sexual conduct, including the suggestion that Scott was exchanging sex for drugs.
Even when it comes to Scott’s sexuality (with drugs in foreground or background, Scott was apparently intimate with men), Bailey neither examines his brother’s possible sexual preference, nor his own possible discomfort with the subject. After Bailey must clean out Scott’s apartment — with Scott in the hospital after a drunken car crash, their father has in effect evicted him from the low-rent pad — Bailey asks their mother about Scott’s licentious behavior: “How many more dildos and crack pipes and car wrecks do you need?” Later, Marlies reveals that, in addition to the dildos and crack pipes in Scott’s apartment, there “was also a small box of photos: Scott, nude, striking a number of homoerotic poses.” Scott himself told Bailey, during this period, “a lot about sex that I simply tuned out.” Self-punishing attitudes toward an illustrated desire for men arise as subtext throughout the book; themes the memoir, beneath the surface; shares with Bailey’s biographies of Cheever and Jackson, as well as his undergraduate thesis about Percy. Clearly Bailey has engaged in painstaking investigations, enumerations, and research on the subjects of denial, self-lacerating desire, and secrets. But here, in his memoir, these intimacies, the sometimes sadly framed exchanges, lack considered analysis, leaving a fogginess that is not addressed, or even really acknowledged. The avoidance of any distinct attitude, when it comes to Scott, feels slightly dated; this is notably not the case when Bailey describes his Marlies’s period of more decadent behavior, afternoons in her smoke-filled living room, a variety of mind-affecting substances on hand, surrounded by local exchange students and gay men. When it comes to a conversation with his father, Bailey sticks to obfuscation, partly through over-talking the subject, and good ol’ boys reassurances. The son elaborates:
“You know, he [Scott] said Oscar wanted to fuck him. He said everybody wanted to fuck him, male or female. He said it bothered him.”
“On the other hand, Scott’s pretty lonely these days, so who knows. He and Uncle Ronny [not a blood relation] go to church together.” I shrugged. “But do I think he’s gay? Nah. He likes girls, the younger the better.”
The scene presents lively, well-shaped dialogue. We see the characters in action, sense their attitudes and relationship. We can infer possibilities: almost as though watching a play. One might argue it is the reader’s job to interrogate Scott’s behavior, his motives, his unaccepted desires, and his undiagnosed conditions; the same for the narrator’s, and his father’s, attitudes and behavior. But a reader who has come to know, to understand, even to care for Scott Bailey — and for the younger brother faced with Scott’s presence and his absence, teller and subject of the story — longs for a narrative center.
We want the quester of self, rather than biographer of other — that’s what makes memoir so uniquely satisfying — neither a higher art than fiction, than biography, nor a lower one. Memoir demands a particular understanding between reader and writer. The writer, in choosing to tackle life experiences, will take himself on a journey, likely a difficult and precarious one, and will bring the reader along as he endeavors to make sense of loss, addiction, abuse, premature death — of all that seems senseless. By composing, we create cohesion, where it otherwise might not exist. Bailey has done this: he’s created a cohesive narrative of destruction, one that appears to continue as though there were no other possible paths. But where is the narrator, who by virtue of the genre, is also a character in this story? Where is Bailey? Why does he persist in wearing the biographer’s suit?
Self-criticism, even honesty about college binge drinking or harsh words spoken to his brother, does not serve as a placeholder for self. We have an in-depth, detail-filled biography of Scott Bailey, and this is a worthwhile endeavor: the ordinary life illuminated — including the ordinary life as car wreck; car wreck after car wreck — can inform, enlighten, even entertain, which Bailey seems particularly to want. Furthermore, a life exposed and illuminated can offer succor to those left in the wake of similar destructive and self-destructive behavior. There are many Scott Baileys in the world; many of them replete with families who do not understand; do not know what to do; and so instinctively cordon themselves off, the tide of destruction, and the pain, too great.
But what about the redeeming compassion for a ruined life? This sentiment is comfortably present in passages from Bailey’s biographies of Yates and of Cheever, two men who between them share a remarkable composite of traits and behaviors with Scott. Bailey writes in A Tragic Honesty:
For a full year now Yates had been skirting the abyss […]. Such moods of postpartum depression, as it were [having just finished a novel], began to alternate with overwhelming waves of elation or panic that only massive amounts of alcohol could allay. As another manic-depressive (who knew Yates well) explained, “We feel so off all the time, like a thermostat is forty degrees off. Alcohol is a way to medicate that uneasiness.”
Geoffrey Wolff, whose indelible The Duke of Deception is one model of the memoir genre, writes of Bailey’s Cheever biography in The New York Times Book Review:
[T]he business of this biography is to explore the varieties and costs of unreliability not only in the expression of art, but also in the society of family and the prison of an obsessed self. This mission makes Bailey’s biography of Cheever both arresting and disturbing, a disturbance of the peace, if you will.
And from the text of Cheever itself, on the subject of Cheever’s final novel:
Falconer had been a catharsis of sorts — the story of a man who makes peace with himself, partly in the form of a homosexual love affair — and shortly after he finished the novel, Cheever also seemed to find peace.
It strikes one that Bailey is honoring and tending the memory of his brother through these two older and — this is significant — vastly more accomplished men. Writing and literary achievements served, at times, as lifelines for Cheever and Yates. Their literary accomplishments immortalize the men’s lives, as well as their work. Bailey treats with great tenderness and respect the role that literature plays in both these ways, as salve and achievement. Scott, though, who as a young child took pleasure in books, has ceased to be a reader by early adolescence, and Bailey seems to judge him quite sternly for this lapse, as though Scott’s retreat from serious reading were a moral flaw, the moral flaw that brings about or justifies the ensuing series of tragic self-destructive behaviors. One might, with equal ease, and a jot of clinical insight, propose the dropping of serious reading as not cause but symptom. Yates suffered from bipolar disorder, a disproportionately common condition among writers and other artists; Yates broke down; and Yates stood back up, writing some of the most meaningful fiction of his century. Scott did not. Whatever Scott’s disability — neurological, biochemical, one of addiction — he was not able to redeem his difficulties through creative enterprise.
One cannot help but judge a life by its achievements; and yet memoir, as opposed to biography, compels writer and reader to look at a life in all its facets; to understand that ordinary foibles and trials, the ones we all face mostly behind closed doors, are made exceptional through candor, and through insights sought and gleaned in creating and restoring our experience in words. But of course this is not Scott’s memoir, and it isn’t quite Bailey’s, either.
Bailey quotes Bernard Malamud as saying of Cheever’s “miraculous resurrection” through art: “Here he’d been having a dreadful time … but he stayed with it. And through will and the grace literature affords, he saved himself.” And of Yates’s novel Disturbing the Peace, Bailey writes:
Readers who need to care about fictional characters will be left cold, as will readers who require a certain clarity of message. (The novel proposes no solution to the problems it raises: Modern reality is insipid, Yates suggests, and those who can’t take refuge in art or illusions or “success” — of whatever sort — are probably condemned to addiction or madness, and there you have it.) But the novel is as strange and perfect in its way as a Fabergé egg, and almost as beautifully useless.
Bailey’s assertions in the biographies hold clues to deeply felt personal realities, lurking below the surface, brought forth in The Splendid Things We Planned — and yet the view is perhaps too close in; the wounds so raw as to be barely cauterized. In fact, the memoir slides over most of the process of realizing the Yates biography and getting started on Cheever, stopping more or less where Bailey’s writing of his biographies — his great intimacies — begins.
By the time of Scott’s death in 2003, the Yates book was about to come out. It arrived on the shelves just a few months later. This is a great accomplishment, one to cheer and commend on behalf of our narrator who, by his own intimations, had evidently escaped assorted, possibly sordid, alternative narratives. But knowing the depth of insight and thought that are poured into the Yates and Cheever biographies, we might well mourn the absence of some greater explication of Scott’s parallel story. Some of this memoir was composed a number of years ago, and likely played a role in his processing of the lives of those so fallible literary giants, but the influence has not gone far enough in the other direction, in informing his self-interrogation and his treatment of his real-life characters.
Saul Bellow writes in The New York Review of Books following his friend Cheever’s death:
I think that the difference between John and me endeared us more to each other than the affinities. He was a Yankee; I, from Chicago, was the son of Jewish immigrants. His voice, his style, his humor were different from mine. His manner was reticent, mine was — something else. It fell to John to resolve these differences. He did this without the slightest difficulty, simply by putting human essences in first place […].
Bellow elaborates: “He spoke of himself as he would speak of anybody else, disinterestedly and concisely.” An attribute that strikes one as related to Bailey’s approach to the project of the memoir. The biographer Michael Holroyd remarks about himself, in his first of three memoirs, Basil Street Blues:
To other people, I know that I appear reticent. This surprises me, since I do not always feel reticent or keep my opinions to myself. Have I not been in tears while writing parts of this book — tears of laughter sometimes? Doubtless I have a self-protective manner, the reasons for which are scattered through this narrative. Nevertheless, despite my appearance of reticence, I have gained something of a reputation as the biographer of Lytton Strachey and Augustus John for beating back the frontiers of reticence in other people’s lives. So what can I do in this near-autobiographical story? To some extent I am obliged to reflect the silence and repression within my family — a code of privacy shared by most ordinary people of those times — because they do not hand me the codebreaking clues of any correspondence. So what I can reveal emerges more between the lines of my writing.
Here, think again of Bellow writing of his friendship with Cheever. Think of the biographer, Bailey, and his reticence; a coveted quality really, this effacement of self in order to plumb the depths of another. Think of Holroyd, and then Cheever — self-effacement of a different sort; erasure as self-laceration and punishment, but also to render someone more than himself, or more true to himself, through fiction.
Margaret Atwood, in her essay collection Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, taken from The Empson Lectures, which she was invited to give at the University of Cambridge in 2000, says:
Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth — what Wilfred Owen, in his descent-to-the-Underworld poem, “Strange Meeting,” calls the “truth untold” — so if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time.
And she quotes from Ovid: “But still, the fates will leave me my voice, / And by my voice I shall be known.”
In addressing this memoir, there is a redoubled question of voice: whose voice? Who carries the narrative, its author and narrator or the writer’s central subject? Do we count on Bailey — the writer-self — or on Scott, to focus our engagement and bind us to the stakes? Citing a lecture he wrote on biography, Holroyd writes, in Basil Street Blues:
Far from adding a new terror to death, the good biographer gives an opportunity to the dead to contribute to the living world. […] I believe we pay a compliment to the dead by keeping them in employment to assist the living.
Bailey has been applauded for his renditions — compiling, sifting, selecting, and synthesizing — in biography; and although we require these skills in memoir, too, we also expect and take pleasure in the author as both narrator and active character, the narrator’s voice coming forward, rather than existing more subtly as the thread blended into the cloth. In memoir and in fiction, much more so than in biography, there is the element of the unknown; the writer must continuously realign his or her course to what we cannot express but toward which we strive.
In her negotiations with the dead, Margaret Atwood writes: “Possibly then, writing has to do with the darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.” Between the covers of The Splendid Things We Planned, one has the deceptive feeling that the narrator’s descent into memory and the past did not involve great personal risk. The danger, the pull of the darkness, and the desire to emerge from it, having shed light, has been smoothed over, polished away, or blanketed, save for a hint of something else near the concluding pages.
They’d heard his life was troubled, of course, but it’s a strange leap from the fussy, precocious little man Scott had been, once upon a time, to the weary bearded lunatic who’d killed himself in jail. When you look at it that way — the one and then the other — life seems a terrible thing.
This reader misses the presence of more such acknowledgments, and especially the grappling with the disjunctions that remain, even at the end. Scott kills himself in a county jail, having been placed in solitary confinement “for his own safety.” Such jarring circumstances beg attention, and one would expect at least some of this discourse about them to appear quite organically within the narrative. Instead there is silence — customary with suicide, but anathema to the tasks of memoir. This is, in some respects, a matter of taste. But it also brings us back to questions of genre, of form, of caliber.
Seamless prose is a pleasure to read; we move, without fretting too much, from sentence to sentence, and are not distracted from forward motion. But some of the best books demand that we pause; the weight of the content bears down too hard, whether W. G. Sebald in the fictionalized Austerlitz, or Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Aquarium,” André Aciman in any number of writings, Peter Handke in his slender and devastating memoir about his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, William Styron.
We humans repeatedly find ourselves in periods or moments of chaos; we look for ways to comprehend. Writing offers the tools to assist in this, but the labor is our own. In A Tragic Honesty, Bailey quotes from a letter Yates wrote to a student, Peter Najarian, echoing, as Bailey points out, Flaubert. This, two weeks after Yates emerged from a stay at Bellevue Hospital, following a nervous breakdown:
All you ought to be worrying about now is order (not about how to impose it on chaos, which is the opposite of art, but about how to bring it out of chaos, which is art itself). … One final piece of solemn, teacherly advice, and I do mean this: Try to like yourself a little better.
The Splendid Things We Planned makes us want to hear the full range of Bailey’s voice — as writer, narrator, and subject of the story. As the authorized biographer of Philip Roth, Bailey is sure to be consumed — subsumed — by yet another man’s life for some years to come. Bailey has now given us that part of his life that was Scott; he has carried the weight of his brother’s life, along with the weight of his death; for Bailey, from Bailey, about Bailey, one wishes for more.