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Sadomodernist Memoir

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 6, September/October 2013
pp. 19-20 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0114

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Marcia Aldrich's memoir, Companion to an Untold Story (2012), is a book whose content demands its form and a work whose chosen form makes new what would otherwise be fairly staid material for a grief memoir: the suicide of the author's husband's best friend. That litany, however—author's husband's best friend—is why the distanced and distancing form of a reference text serves the material so effectively. Joel, the best friend whose suicide sends the memoirist-narrator Aldrich into a tailspin of internal questioning, is not her companion: that would be her husband, Richard, and it is his well-being about which the text is implicitly concerned. Aldrich writes a "companion" to a text that doesn't exist. Readers are invited to imagine Joel's autobiography of his life leading up to his suicide, for which Aldrich's book is intended as guide.

David Shields and Ander Monsen are perhaps the two best-known contemporary memoirists working with appropriated fragments of others' words; Aldrich is clearly aware of and working within this tradition. Companion to an Untold Story includes an impressive, comprehensive, and footnoted collection of suicide-related quotations taken from authors ranging from Wilhelm Stekel to Franz Kafka to Andrew Solomon's Noonday Demon (2001). For survivors of suicide, the breadth of this research, and Aldrich's occasional elucidation of the quotes she selects, could provide some consolation.

The vademecum comes in as many forms as there are referent texts in need of parsing. Consider The Bloomsday Book (1966), which provides a narrative account of the plot of Ulysses (1937), intended to help undergraduates survive a first encounter with Joyce's opus. Or Steven Weisenberger's companion to Gravity's Rainbow (1973), which works its way through the novel page by page, providing historical footnotes to quoted passages. That the man who kills himself, and the rationale behind that decision, might be a text as complex as Pynchon or Joyce is a premise Aldrich takes as given.

Of the many companion formats available, Aldrich chooses to mix glossary with abecedarium, which proves an excellent choice. It invokes the kindergarten grotesque, "as if the simplicity of a child's alphabet book could bring logic to the terrible puzzle of loss," in Susan Orlean's words. (Orlean selected Aldrich's work for the prestigious AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction). Marrying the companion text to the abecedary permits Aldrich to leap both forward and backward in time, an elegant solution to a perennial nonfictional difficulty (creative nonfiction maestro Sven Birkerts wrote an entire book about it: The Art of Time in Nonfiction). Aldrich gives each short section a header (as in "Ambition") and then bolds the key term in other sections of the book ("it was Joel's ambition to kill himself), sending readers scrambling to connect the dots, making the text an interactive puzzle. Once the allure of leaping around the text fades, however, and the underlying narrative comes clear, formal pyrotechnics take a backseat to a relatively linear account of the aftermath of suicide.

Cruelty is an ever-present danger in creative nonfiction writing. The memoirist-narrator selects which details to include and which to omit, and when it comes to capturing the interiority of other people, especially when this capture involves a person who is deceased, the act of selection can produce sadism in that the dead person cannot object to his or her portrayal. Aldrich makes frequent mention of how much Joel valued his privacy, even as she exposes his life to scrutiny. She appears fascinated by the banality of Joel's suicide. Why this might be, however, is left unexamined. Aldrich is unsparing in revealing humiliating secrets from this man's life. Joel secretly hoped for his father's death because he needed the inheritance money to pay down his debts.

Joel's private letters to Richard, Aldrich's husband, are transcribed verbatim and excerpted in the text. In only one of many examples, Joel's words (under the header "Self-pity") are set besides an entry titled "Sisyphus"; a later passage that redirects back to Sisyphus contains a quote from Camus. It's one thing for Aldrich to set her own...

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