As if memoir hasn’t been kicked around enough by the self-appointed literary police out there (those critics/readers/whomever willing to pounce on what they consider the least transgression in the genre), now there’s a play—a play on Broadway no less, and one of the season’s big hits—that tangles and diminishes some more the too-often misunderstood form.
The play is called Other Desert Cities, and I saw it with my husband on a recent quick trip to New York. The production we most wanted to get to, Richard III with Kevin Spacey as the tormented king, was sold out—no chance of picking up a couple of Saturday night seats at BAM. A friend told us he could find tickets for Other Desert Cities, though he whispered under his breath that he himself had found the story “soap opera-y.” That should have put the skids on our plans right there, but he’d seen the play early on, and the New York Times review I looked up assured me that the acting had gelled, the pacing improved, and the overall production was more mature. So I talked my husband into heading into the psychedelic madhouse of Times Square—where we were nearly smashed by a gang of tourists rushing past us with their phones snapping photos of a giant projection of Justin Bieber—to watch Rachel Griffiths (who I loved to hate in Six Feet Under), Stockard Channing (what could go wrong if she’s on stage?), and Stacey Keach, among others, gyrate through a nasty Christmas-time family squabble.
Other Desert Cities enticed me most of all because Griffiths plays a writer, a fortyish woman (one of my many problems with the play—the ages of the characters are nearly impossible to sort out) with one successful novel in her past and a new book—a memoir—punchy enough that the New Yorker plans to run an excerpt.
About twenty minutes into the show—and our friend had secured us seats that offered a perfect view of the stage—I started to wonder if playwright Jon Robin Baitz had actually ever read a memoir. Because from the get-go, Brooke Wyeth (Griffiths’ character), comes off as an entitled brat regarding her precious manuscript, that thick collection of pages she brought with her from Long Island, that years-of-work collection of pages that she’d made copies of for everyone to read right then, right there. It was Brooke’s whining, a low drone that increased in volume and intensity in the first act, that caused me to sink lower and lower in my seat.
Why won’t you read my book? [Stomps feet] Why don’t you drop everything and pay attention to me, me, me? [Stomp, stomp]
The family has a rotten old secret, one the parents—so Republican that they have “Nancy” over for tea (the play is set in 2004, before Nancy’s demise)—have spent half a lifetime hiding like so much Gollum stink in a deep underground cave. The secret is so damning and dangerous that even the couple’s grown children know only about half of it. The half she does know is the plot of Brooke’s grating book (I know it’s grating because she read part of it aloud. Ick.). She makes it clear that the fat bunch of pages she thrusts toward her hugely disappointed mother (and you know that those two hundred fifty pieces of paper are going to find themselves mid-air, flung by angry Brooke, before the last act) is nothing but a castigation of the right-wing parents—their politics, their hypocrisy, their failures as mother and father to their creative, darling children.
Those bad, bad people over there have done harm to good, good me.
Haven’t we had enough of these litanies-of-complaint? These are the books, upon which some publishing/marketing person has slapped the label of “memoir,” that I despise, even as they keep getting published. And the Booth Theatre audience some weeks back left convinced, I’m convinced, that this is what memoir does: attacks, blames, pitches a fit. Griffiths’ character insists, over and over, that it is her “right” to expose her family for what it is (at least, what she has come to believe it is), with nary a single gesture toward her own agency, her own role in the dynamic, the self-excavation (a Vivian Gornick term) that is at the heart of memoir writing.
Years ago I heard the great Phillip Lopate say that the aim of memoir is self-awareness. A small flinch—because life’s lessons come that incrementally—in the direction of knowing yourself a bit better. Maybe the narrator in the epilogue of Stop-Time is still a wild-eyed and self-destructive maniac who might just drive his car into a wall, but because we’ve been with Frank Conroy through a series of fiercely honest and revealing episodes from the past—because we’re convinced as readers that he has faced most of the most hidden parts of himself—we know that he has inched toward seeing himself more clearly by the end of the book.
But, as I said, it doesn’t seem that Baitz read Stop-Time, or Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, or the Brothers Wolff, or, more recently, Darrin Strauss’ amazing Half A Life, Jane Bernstein’s Bereft, or Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction. If he did read these books, or any of the hundreds of others every bit as moving, honest, and riveting, then he failed to recognize just where the power of memoir lies. Not in the blaming (including blame of self) and despising, not in the defensiveness that emanates from Brooke-the-writer, but in the vulnerable, honest search for one’s own role in a larger dynamic. “We are in the presence of a mind puzzling through its own shadows,” writes Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, yet another book I wish Baitz had studied before presenting the story of a memoirist to eager audiences, night after night, under the glittering lights of Broadway.