Speak, Memory, Then Fact-Check

Leon Neyfakh at the Observer reports on David Carr's fastidiously investigated druggie memoir The Night of the Gun and thinks it's just the rehab an ailing genre needs: "After years of abuse, the memoir has found its white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true. Mr. Carr's book...practically issues a challenge to those current reigning kings-David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Ishmael Beah-of the memoir genre: You get a video camera and tape recorder, and retrace the steps of your life. Will your story sound the same?" Carr even hired a reporter to help him reconstruct the evidence of his forgotten crackhead years, which raises an interesting question: Will he be credited for bringing journalistic rigor to the memoir, or will a superabundance of facts and sources — "No, this really happened, I have affidavits to prove it!" — baptize the next big thing in literary narcissism?

The related question, of course, is whether or not anyone would be so interested in Carr's story (the book comes out next week) if he weren't now a celebrated columnist for the NYT... Sedaris, Burroughs, Eggers — most successful memoirists today start out as relative unknowns. It's the confessional that announces them to the world, which either expects them to keep on confessing (and is willing to overlook embellishment) or pays them the compliment of taking whatever other work they might do seriously for at least five minutes. Apart from being a minor celebrity already, Carr's original contribution to the modern autobiography is to lay bare the unreliable workings of memory. He wants to be a free-basing Nabokov.

A small snatch of his story was excerpted two weekends ago in the Times Magazine, no doubt to reinforce its before-and-after appeal: I went from sharing needles to sharing cabs with MoDo! In the hands of a worse writer, this exercise would have been a disaster. I read the piece start to finish and came away wanting more. But Carr does seem to periodically renew his license for twee, as in this graph:

If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we're talking. Both are equally true, but as a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I'm inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together. We tell ourselves that we lie to protect others, but the self usually comes out looking damn good in the process.

Get on with it already. Either stick to the smart meditations on cognitive recall, or tell your dark tale the way you and everyone else remember it and let the reader judge for himself your former cretinism. Don't do one as a way of doing the other.

UPDATE: Gawker alum Joshua David Stein reviews NOTG favorably in the Observer .

[Observer]