Memoir as Collage
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Memoir as Collage
Gathering Noise from My Life: A Camouflaged Memoir by Donald Anderson (University of Iowa Press, 2012. 216 pages. $21 pb)

Donald Anderson has been associated with the military most of his adult life. After retiring from the Air Force, he now teaches creative writing at the Air Force Academy and is editor of the journal War, Literature, and the Arts. His latest book, whether one thinks of it as a grab bag or simply as a good [End Page xi] read filled to the brim with provocative observations about our culture and Anderson’s life, gives the genre of memoir a new and exciting face. “We are where we’ve been,” Anderson insists, “and what we’ve read.” In Anderson’s case the “where” includes, among other places, Butte, Montana (where he was born and raised), and Beale Air Force Base near Yuba City, California (where he was stationed during the Vietnam War). Reading, an activity Anderson describes as “reliable and abiding,” is one of the forces driving his memoir. By peppering the text with generous citations from Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Tim O’Brien, and dozens of lesser-known writers on war, Anderson’s hope, of course, is that readers will search out and read the books they have already sampled.

In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2006) David Shields defines “collage” as “the art of reassembling fragments of the preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image.” By adding everything from the grim recitation of “facts” about the respective bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima to personal accounts from soldiers caught in the fog of war, Anderson turns memoir into collage, and collage into memoir. Add the various lists that appear from time to time (advice to writers and writing teachers, a selection of jaw-dropping graffiti, or ruminations about boxers and boxing) and the result is a multilayered effort that reveals as much about mid-century American culture as it does about Donald Anderson.

For many general readers nothing could be easier than the distinction between what travels as “fiction” and what such people too easily trust as “nonfiction”: for them, fiction is “made up”; nonfiction, by contrast, is verifiable. The situation, however, is much more complicated: nonfiction is the special truth told from the perspective of the teller, and what actually happened, what was actually said, often differs substantially from what is reported. Memoirists of the first rank know how to put on a straight face when talking about the deeper truth of their visions; moreover they are clever enough to know the power packed into their craft.

That’s why the subtitle of Anderson’s book—“a camouflaged memoir”—works on several levels: soldiers trust camouflage gear to help them blend into the landscape and thus escape enemy fire; Anderson’s memoir uses camouflage to complicate, rather than to mask, how best to tell a life story.

Sometimes Anderson finds it useful to quote from one of his earlier books (the excerpts from Fire Road [2001] deal with serious matters involving health); at other times he brings his wife into discussions of whether or not “bowling with dwarves” crosses the line in a culture in which Mike Tyson once bit off an opponent’s ear during a prizefight.

The fact of the matter is that Gathering Noise from My Life ought not to work, but it does and works partly because Anderson’s voice is as clear and uncluttered as Montana’s streams used to be: “When I was a kid I wondered how young Jack dealt with the giant’s body after chopping down the beanstalk—decay, drinking water, cholera? No wait: I still wonder.” Better yet Anderson’s [End Page xii] “wonderment” never vanishes. He can, for example, describe his early training as a Mormon and his mission to France without using brickbats. He has left that faith for another, but that does not mean he can’t be honest about his fond remembrances of Mormonism.

In the final analysis Anderson’s memoir works because it is unfailingly interesting. The scattered bits and pieces often contain things and/or comparisons I had not...


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