Reality Reading: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

[‘Reality Reading’ is a series focused on books recommended by writer David Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto). These books have been referenced favorably in either his controversial new book, in person (at his March 2010 appearance at the Brookline Booksmith), or in the many interviews that Shields has given in his ongoing quest to declare the death of the novel and champion the emergence of a “new prose,” one that defies tradition and convention in an attempt to give the reader something of greater substance, such as, among other things, clearer insight into the human condition or a more accurate depiction of the culture we belong to today. He would hate that last sentence (see: Reality Hunger, pages 126-130, “in praise of brevity”). For an introduction to Shields’ compelling literary theory see: his brief summary at The Millions, as well as his joint Bookworm interview with Ander Monson, author of Vanishing Point: Not A Memoir, reviewed very favorably by Shields here.]

“Who even cares about the boys of my youth? There weren’t any, it was all imaginary. I’m making it up as I go along” (180).

The Boys of My Youth, a collection of personal essays, is my first conscious foray into what I’ve deemed “reality reading.” I read John D’Agata (Halls of Fame) not knowing that Shields was a big fan, friend even, of the master lyric essayist. Reading Boys, I looked for aspects of it that Shields would have pointed to as most appealing. This proved to be something of a challenge, as Beard’s essays, while good (often great), aren’t terribly experimental in the same way that Shields’ favorite books appear to be.

One essay (“Bulldozing the Baby”), in which Beard recalls a doll, Hal, that she played with as a three-year old, reminded me of something that Shields said about memory at his reading in Brookline. Addressing the issue of fraud in memoir (James Frey, for example), Shields kind of shrugged and said that memoirs have to, inarguably, contain lies. Dialogue recalled in a memoir, without the assistance of a tape recorder, or another recording method, is not verbatim. What’s written, technically, was not said. The gist of any given conversation may be the same, but its composition can be drastically different. Remembering this, I had to ask myself, “How does Jo Ann Beard remember all this?” This question yields answers that get to the heart of storytelling, a function I think Shields would much like.

Beard may have wrote from scattered memories; her doll, her crib, her mother’s cigarette smoke, but not how they each related to one another. From these pieces, she may have fictionalized much of what ended up becoming the finished essay. The fragmentary nature of memory is one of the things Shields feels gets side-stepped, mishandled, and misrepresented by most memoir writers today, but “Bulldozing the Baby” would be an example of memory’s fragmentation, its malleability, lending significant power to a personal essay. In terms of Beard’s presumed fictionalizing, as John D’Agata said at his appearance in Brookline, “nonfiction” is sort of a misnomer in the first place, as “fiction,” at its most elemental, means “to have been invented, and given shape, or form.” In short, ideally, all good writing is a fiction.

More likely, however, Beard has heard the story of her and Hal from her mother, father, aunt, or sister. Everyone remembers differently, though. Beard, as all memorists, I assume, must, had to consolidate the memory of her family members, as well as her puerile own, into a cogent, honest remembrance. But how honest can it ever be? To Shields, I don’t think this matters. For him, the ambiguity makes for more interesting writing/reading. He argues for literature that blurs the line, or sits on the boundary between fiction and non-, and I understand his excitement for books that do that (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a favorite of mine, being a prime example). I guess I just still have trouble seeing the blur as anything but a “bug” of the work, whereas Shields would see it as a “feature.”

Relating back to writing from fragmented memory, there are times when Beard writes of a place smelling of “manure and something.” Or, that the sky appeared like, say, the ocean “and something.” A few times this “… and something” appears in description, and it seems like incredibly subtle, honest writing. It taps into the indefinable nature of memory. You can almost imagine Beard struggling at her desk to remember, exactly, the smell, view, or feeling of a particular moment, ultimately deciding upon “… and something” as the most honest explanation. When “… and something” appeared, its indefiniteness was refreshing.

The title essay also does an interesting job of handling memory as, at one point, Beard’s childhood best friend, Elizabeth, interrupts the essay (via Beard’s memory of a recent phone conversation) that, until then, was focused only on an old memory that Beard was recalling/writing about, to say that what Jo had just suggested, in her essay, was wrong. That they had not met in French class. “So, if we didn’t meet in French class, then how did we meet? She thinks for a moment. ‘I have no idea,’ [Elizabeth] says. ‘We just met, that’s how we met” (157). I can see Shields nodding along to Beard’s decision to use this memory-within-a-memory scheme, this self-reflexivity. I can also see him appreciating the collage-like structure of “Cousins,” which jumps between decades, non-linearly.

Overall, I was very pleased with The Boys of My Youth. I thought each essay in the collection had something valuable to say about childhood, coming-of-age, and the sadness of adult life. I skipped one essay (“The Fourth State of Matter”) that I had read already in a course called “Literature of Extreme Situations.” It’s a fantastic essay, one that I focused closely on in my final paper, in fact, but greatly upsetting. If I do return to it, I will likely write something up for it, as its rich enough to merit its own post.

Next “Reality Read”: Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which Shields spoke about in Brookline, and has brought up, repeatedly, in interviews. This is a “literary collage work” and looks to be more unconventional (i.e., more identifiably Shields-ian) than Beard’s essay collection.

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