How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
by Alexander Chee
Mariner, 2018; 280 pp
Reviewed by Guia Cortassa
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." A classic Oscar Wilde quote and a thought that lingers all throughout Alexander Chee's essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel—to the point that, once reached the title essay toward the end of the book, not only you might expect to find the British author's sentence among the many statements written by Chee, but even find yourself slightly disappointed when that doesn't happen. The mask—"disguise," he calls it—stands in the thin line between fiction and nonfiction, between what the writer decides to make up in the pages and what they choose to tell as it really happened; between what the reader identifies as truth and what, instead, as fiction. The disguise, as he calls it, has the shape of an autobiographical novel: a subtle, revealing tool that allows to blur the edges, to hide in plain sight and to expose things that would otherwise be impossible to bear.
You lost in the trap of “that happened,” and you struggle because “that is how that really happened,” and yet you cannot make it convincing in fiction, cannot figure out what happen next.
Your novel only an anecdote, your plot a series of aversions, dodges in disguises, trauma dressed as friends saying, “Yes you can no you can’t yes you can.”
But the game's not lost, nor over. You learn this from the pages of an essay collection—a form reckoned to only speak the truth, excluding any creation or manipulation of the events in its inherent nature.
Why is it not a memoir? People will ask.
Escaping from the menacing shade of the memoir, Chee leads the readers on two parallel tracks, running alongside each another: while penning essays on craft about autobiographical fiction, explaining how to transform the self into a character and vice-versa, his own story finds the perfect space on the page, telling how to he became a writer among successes and failures; a civil right activist; and an American, coming from a different country and culture. He handles this mix of personal and technique as the most natural thing, coming off with an irresistible signature style, always balanced and neves stepping above the line.
The Novel is a presence you get acquainted with page after page. Sometimes an entire essay it's devoted to it; in others it is loitering, waiting for the author to come back to it, knowing that it's impossible to forget its haunting wraith. At times you get the feeling that the Novel is only an excuse for confession; elsewhere you might think that it's all a wicked game from an unreliable narrator just waiting to be debunked. But while you try to decipher this enigma, looking at the finger, the whole Moon of a life is already before your very eyes, unfolding through the words.