How to write wonderful essays
In 2001, Alexander Chee published “Edinburgh,” a singularly beautiful and psychologically harrowing first book that still stands as one of the best American novels of this century. Now, he’s published “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” a first book of essays that is just as good, and almost as singular, as his novelistic debut. (In the interim, he also published a second novel, “The Queen of the Night.”)
How good is “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”? It’s so good that I could fill my word count just with quotations: “I made a world I knew, not the world I knew, and began again there”; “[T]here was in me a dream of fear, so powerful I made a doll of myself to stay in my place, and I ran away. The doll woke up, stretched, looked around, and believed it was me.” It’s so good that several of its essays match the standards of Annie Dillard, Chee’s teacher at Wesleyan and America’s greatest living essayist. “Edinburgh” was a masterpiece; so too is “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.”
One of its beauties is how simultaneously shaped and flexible it is, both thematically coherent and varied in subject matter. First, note the topical variety: There’s an exquisite essay on Chee’s mid-1990s obsession with rose gardening, another on 1980s AIDS activism in San Francisco, another on tarot card readings, another on money as the bearer of symbolic meanings. There’s formal variety, too: The title essay and “100 Things About Writing a Novel” both resemble Dillard’s “For the Time Being’’ in their angularity, wit, occasional surrealism, and experimental structures.
But if there’s a wide range to the how’s and what’s of these essays, there’s a unity to the why’s — to the moral and aesthetic concerns that Chee pursues across subjects. He’s interested in the fluid borders between fiction and autobiography, how making things up allows us to see our lives more truthfully: “I needed to make a ‘fake autobiography,’ for someone like me but not me, giving him the situations of my life but not the events.” He’s interested in trauma and how it shapes desire and the self. (“Edinburgh” is in part the fake autobiography of Chee’s own experience of sexual abuse.) He’s interested in writerly craft but also in queerness — Chee recently married his longtime partner — and in the artist’s role in American culture. Chee’s particular style of mind and habits of moral engagement hold the collection together; every essay, no matter the subject, exhibits warmth, rigor, tact.
The real gems are “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “The Guardians.” When read together, these honest, graceful essays narrate the compositional history of “Edinburgh” by narrating Chee’s changing relationship to traumatic memory. Superb essays about creating a book and creating a self, they echo Elizabeth Bishop’s lines about disciplining loss through writing: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Or, as Chee puts it, “what we invent, we control . . . what we don’t, we don’t.” (Chee summarizes this thought from his teacher Deborah Eisenberg, and he’s continually generous to those writers who have shaped his own work.)
The shorter, less sweeping pieces are likewise excellent. Take the book’s first essay, “The Curse.” It begins by placing us in time and space: “I spent the summer I turned fifteen on an exchange program in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chipas, in Mexico, some three hundred miles north of the Guatemalan border.” Then, the essay slowly expands in scope. The young Chee becomes fluent in Spanish and is convinced by his hosts to participate in a game: “I was to try to fool their friends, who had come in from Oaxaca, into thinking I was Mexican.” Playing at being someone he isn’t paradoxically allows Chee to be himself more truly: “In Maine, my background — half white, half Korean — was constantly made to seem alien, or exotic, or somehow inhuman. In Mexico, I was only mestizo, ordinary at first glance.” Performance and authenticity aren’t antithetical here. As Chee later puts it in an essay on drag, “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.”
As the essay ends, Chee leaves Mexico and his mestizo performance behind, heading back to Maine and his sole self: “I would never have this life. No life but the one I had. America now the exile of me.” But, as the rest of this book makes clear, being a writer has enabled Chee both to live the life he’s had and to transform it. The mask conceals and it reveals; writing transfigures and it uncovers. That’s the gift that writing has given Chee, and it’s the gift that his wonderful new collection gives its readers.
HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL
By Alexander Chee
Mariner, 288 pp., paperback, $15.99
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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’