“LOOK, it’s my misery that I have to paint this kind of painting, it’s your misery that you have to love it,” said the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, underscoring the cruel bond between the artist and his patron. At its most basic, the memoir genre is predicated on a similar agreement with the reader: tell me something tragic, terrible, true about your life; I will listen, I will understand. The memoir doesn’t exist without this quid pro quo.
The “I,” as we know, is everywhere. Parenting blogs and phoenix-rising myths grow on our internet lawn like weeds; self-fulfilling quizzes lead us to our fictional and historical likenesses; mothers share theories about their toddlers’ mental health or sexual preferences; teens talk about their crushing social fears; men about their sexual impotency. Words once cast deep into our personal diaries are now broadcast to all. We are a culture of over-sharers — we can’t get enough of everything “I.” As critic Adam Kirsch notes in The New Republic: “[T]he new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self.”
Memoirists, of course, have long been accused of solipsism, the implication being that with this emphasis on first-person perspective, both writers and readers risk losing, among other things, the roundness of truth. In our hunger for the personal connection — the “I” that is necessary for us to connect our lives to others — we are rendered unable to apprehend the whole experience, we limit our understanding of everything else. The world, as Kirsch observes, becomes a “mere staging ground.”
How refreshing then, to find a memoir that is utterly distrustful of the “I”: in The Splendid Things We Planned — subtitled A Family Portrait — noted biographer Blake Bailey takes on memoir, but goes to great lengths to subvert its most identifiable qualities: the assumed authority of the first-person-singular, the inclusion of impossible-to-remember details, unrelenting sentimentality, and conventional novelistic linearity.
Bailey is a celebrated biographer of literary figures, from Cheever to Yates. His work has been characterized and distinguished by intense research and passionate but careful scrutiny. It is not surprising then, even inevitable, that those skills — the research, the scrutiny, the steady, unmoving eye of a biographer at the height of his powers — inform the reader’s experience of this memoir, like restless ghosts, their presence felt only in their reluctant absence. Like the excellent biographer he is, Bailey employs opposing viewpoints and questions his subject’s — that is, his own — biased perspective.
In her review in SFGate, Leslie Jamison noted the author’s “insistence on granting room for other perspectives. Bailey is perpetually giving other people a chance to dispute his memories […]. He loves his family by giving them a stake in the story, by imagining what it was like for them.” What Jamison aptly identifies as Bailey’s allowance for other points of view, though, seems less like generosity than it does like distrust and distaste for the task at hand. Throughout the book, Bailey pauses, as if to survey his project, observe its utterly imperfect intent, and, finally, to call foul. This then is his parallel preoccupation and narrative: how to make his account not untrue.
In his effort to be fair, to avoid the traps of the form — to keep himself at a distance, perhaps — Bailey abandons the first person “I” occasionally for the collective “we,” and even addresses his parents by their names, Burck and Marlies. But though his portrait includes each member of the family quartet, the memoir finds its traditional and tragic focus with Scott, Blake’s older brother, whose presence on the page is as propulsive and panic-inducing as a runaway train. From the moment we meet Scott, as a wailing infant too much for his young parents to handle, we know: it is his destruction to which we will bear witness. Bailey writes of Marlies as a young mother on the brink of a breakdown — “Finally beyond despair, she muffled him with a pillow.”
Alongside the shrieking, the depiction of the misery of two young, ambitious adults pushed to the edge of desperation by an unexpected child, there is a subtler discussion going on. After all, Bailey wasn’t yet alive for this scene, and so he cannot be certain of the story, which he recalls his mother telling him one drunken night, though she now “vehemently” denies it. Three pages into the book, he establishes space for opposing perspectives, and suggests that he’s unwilling to claim the total authority he regularly assumes as a biographer — not out of fear, but because he distrusts the genre. It follows that his memoir isn’t solely interested in being a memoir, a one-way story of collected and summarized scenes, but a study in family history and its many different avenues of creation.
Early on, we’re introduced to the characters: his father, Burck, a lawyer, stoic and hard-working; mother, Marlies, gregarious, unsatisfied, and stubborn; Scott, their outgoing if off-kilter firstborn son; and Blake, the younger, typically more thoughtful child, neither as good-looking or as brazenly comfortable in his skin as his brother. (Scott boastfully walks around the house naked.) Adolescence in the Bailey household is marked by expected tropes: envy, confusion, scatological hijinks, needless bullying, and sibling jealousy. But Scott has an eerie, somewhat violent sexual presence on the page, which Bailey uses to strong effect as the sense of family dysfunction builds. Of his own adolescent relationship with Scott, Bailey writes: “Oddly or not, the more abusive he became, the more I wanted his approval.”
The vision of a unified family really begins to fray, forcing a move from the country — because they were “falling apart out there” — back to the city. Marlies spends drunken daytime gatherings with her university friends, Burck is consumed by work, Blake struggles to adjust in a new school, while Scott goes from popular to defiantly fringe status. At driving age, Scott totals his newly gifted Porsche 914 and starts to dabble in drugs. He continues on this path, veering from moderate to extreme exhibitions of teenage rebellion. In these early years, which Bailey efficiently works through in fewer than 50 pages, we experience Scott’s character as base-paint primer: a foundation on which the greater sickness reveals itself.
But deranged as he is, Scott is capable of moments of lucidity and self-reflection, which seem to break up the otherwise seamless downward trajectory of his life. Even so, we move quickly from his brief and electric failure at NYU (where he runs through a lobby window in defiance of campus security guards) to his slothful and druggy innocence upon his return to Oklahoma. If there was a loving, albeit strained connection between brothers in the early pages, it all but disappears after Scott’s brief stint in New York.
From then on, Bailey treats (and writes of) his brother as one might an obnoxious stranger — relaying scenes of Scott’s failures with exhausted detachment. The family fractures further: Marlies and Burck divorce, and each boy allies with a parent — Blake with Burck, Scott with Marlies. Instead of attempting to apply a fictional adhesive to the fissure, Bailey simply acknowledges gaps in the narrative.
I only have a few fleeting impressions of Scott from the mid-eighties, though we didn’t entirely lose touch. I saw him over the holidays, or got the odd letter.
Bailey neither wrestles with his estrangement from his brother, nor justifies his feelings with armchair psychology. Later, after a surprisingly steady patch in Scott’s life marked by a long stint as a marine, Bailey observes:
The truth of Scott’s military career is somewhere in between, I think: yes, he was a good marine, and yes, it ended badly. He didn’t want to be a thirtyish corporal; he didn’t want to be thirtyish period.
It’s here, where the author again openly introduces competing ideas and perspectives, that Scott’s character becomes truly multidimensional — the reader experiences him as brother, son, and, finally, stranger. And all the way through that’s the question that hovers in the presence of the family’s deranged conversations and in Bailey’s fleeting moments of emotional clarity. Notwithstanding our biological ties, the book asks, what keeps us bound to one another?
Near the end, absent the gloss of sentimentality, Bailey relays a deadpan conversation with Burck:
As he got older my father rarely lost his temper, but a catharsis was long overdue where Scott was concerned.
“He’s forty-two years old! Tell him to walk off a tall building!”
I agreed, but pointed out that I lacked the moral authority or whatever to make my mother see it that way.
This sort of drained ambivalence, highlighted by the “whatever,” the refusal of revelation, marks the book’s completion. Scott’s last years are summarized in short, revealing scenes filled with humor and desperation. In one such recollection, Bailey, by way of Scott’s friend Thomas, relays a story of his brother longing to commit suicide by jumping off a building, but giving up the idea after concluding he’d need bus fare for the travel. There is no final bang, no grand epiphany waiting for us in the darkest hours. Instead, there is a family in survival mode, waiting for life to take its course. Then it happens: “Scott went out with a certain bravado,” Bailey writes quietly.
In an interview in Hazlitt, the author discussed his straightforward approach:
I felt nothing, or something very close to nothing, but relief. And the grief that came unpredictably, and comes unpredictably to this day, is an entirely separate phenomenon. I just tried to get things right, and right even when they were profoundly counter-intuitive.
Blake Bailey will never be confused with a more lyrical writer — his sentences are often short and marked by a certain frankness. But this blunt-edged delivery works in his favor, allowing him to avoid the traps of melancholy and melodrama — to tell his story and then leave it to exist on its own, apart from him: memoir as portraiture, portraiture as life, framed and contained.
“With those black-on-black, death-dealing rectangles (he found them a ‘torment’ to produce),” wrote Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books, “Rothko was explicitly aiming for ‘something you don’t want to look at.’ Which is one way of accounting for their emotional power: like memento mori, they lead us to an intolerable, yet necessary place.”
The memoir can possess that very same power to “lead us to an intolerable, yet necessary place,” a place where we can see the limits of our own dysfunction, the minor and major tragedies we can examine, share with friends over a long dinner, and finally say, “and it’s true.” In his representation of the form — stark, black on black — Bailey delivers his own “death-dealing rectangles”; challenges the certainty of the history he lays out before us; admits to his humanity and in doing so asks us to confront our own.
Rothko finished the sentence I quoted above with a cynical punctuation that has probably kept the otherwise unremarkable statement alive long after the great artist’s life: it was his misery to paint, the patron’s misery to love it, and the price of the misery was thirteen hundred and fifty dollars. With Mr. Bailey’s memoir, we ask for something true, something real, and we get what we paid for.
Nicholas Miriello is an editor and writer in New York, and a frequent contributor to LARB.