Week 7: Lost in a Forest of Words

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I know that it is August, and that the summer will be coming to an end soon, but I’m resisting really acknowledging the actual date, besides it’s being Wednesday today, August something, with Labor Day right around the corner, because I am so not looking forward to having to give up this luxury of immersing myself in words for these ten weeks and of veering off into books I hadn’t even planned on reading.

I had another accidental two- book week, though technically, I’d started Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How To Write an Autobiographical Novel and also his first novel, Edinburgh, back in June, but put them aside temporarily while other books called my name, so I didn’t really read all those pages within seven days. Sejal Shah has already written a great review of How To Write an Autobiographical Novel for the summer reading challenge, and I don’t want to add much more except to comment on the cover which, if you can see it, runs the title across the top and sides, separating it into four distinct segments:

How To Write

An Autobiographical Novel

Essays by

Alexander Chee

and so to me the book is about how to write. The autobiographical novel is a kind of sleight of hand, fiction about a real life that nevertheless reveals an identity separate from that of the author. This is what all writing is about–ourselves on the page, our words, our language. But the version of who we think we are may not align with what we want to write: “We are not what we think we are. The stories we tell of ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like the ocean. A mask afloat on an open sea”  (How To Write an Autobiographical Novel, 226).

Edinburgh is the story of the long-term consequences of sexual abuse and the effects of masking one’s identity. The beautiful, lyric writing in this novel contrasts with the horrific nature of the plot: the narrator, Fee, a boy soprano, suffers from the shame, degradation, and powerlessness of being preyed upon by his choir director, a pedophile who is attracted to young blonde boys with angelic singing voices. It is through this experience that Fee discovers he is gay, but since his realization comes within the context of his being sexually humiliated, he remains conflicted with his own relationships. Two of the boys who have been abused (and boys Fee secretly loves) commit suicide in appalling ways. Fee lives with a burden of guilt that threatens to unravel him–if he could have revealed the purity of his love to these boys, a love in total contrast to the sexual degradation of Big Eric, the choir director, perhaps they would not have killed himself. This guilt propels him into a relationship later in life that has everything to do with trying to gain back what he has lost. There is a detached, almost disembodied quality to the writing, as if Fee cannot engage with expressing any emotions–although perhaps Chee is suggesting that child sexual abuse is so far beyond the comprehensible that there are no emotions commensurate with its experience.

And yet the language is one of intense lyricism. Here Fee looks back at what his singing meant to him: “The memory I have of my old voice, the soprano of my childhood, is a memory of desire. For the voice to unstring itself. To rise free of the vocal chords, shed the body like a cormorant sheds the sea after plucking its catch. Not to fly but to be flight, not to carry but to be the carrying” (Edinburgh, 72).

Somehow I’d managed to intertwine reading Edinburgh with How To Write an Autobiographical Novel,  stopping the essays just before Chee writes about his experience with his first novel, and then returning just at the point where his deeply reflective words helped me understand what was at stake for him–and continues to be–in all his writing. It’s really instructive, I think, to read an author’s nonfiction together with his or her fiction. The total impression can be overwhelming, but the author’s voice–“a memory of desire”–comes through with clarity and resonance. “Write for your dead,” Chee advises on the last page of his essay collection. It’s as if he is speaking to his own characters in Edinburgh, to Fee, the abused boy, whose story speaks to his own dead. “Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable” (277).

3 comments on “Week 7: Lost in a Forest of Words”

  1. Nadia, what a good idea it was to read an author in different genres back-to-back (or interwoven with each other). I’m going to keep this in mind. I also need to find out more about Chee. Thank you!

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  2. I loved his essays and appreciate what you bring to your write-up by reading one of Chee’s novels, too. It makes me interested in reading some of his fiction (thus far, I haven’t, but am a huge fan of his nonfiction and this book). Also, you’ve written a beautiful review, Nadia!

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