How much fiction can a memoir include? How much truth belongs in fiction? I don’t know the answer, but I love books that make me think about the divide between the two. My latest read, The Hero of this Book, by Elizabeth McCracken is filed under fiction, but has a lot to say about memoir.
In the book, we see the unnamed narrator wandering the streets of London following her mother’s death. She reflects on her mother’s life and as she writes about herself and her mother, tells us she is not writing a memoir. After all, she says her mother “distrusted” memoirs and she promised her she would not write one about her. We even see a photo with a note written by the real McCracken to her private mother promising her that she will never appear as a character in her book.
Yet, the book, clearly about her mother, tells us it is not a memoir. She even gives the reader instructions how to do the same thing saying, “If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else. Let other people argue about it.”
“If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else. Let other people argue about it.”The Hero of This Book
In another passage she tells us more about how not to write a memoir, ““Perhaps you fear writing a memoir, reasonably. Invent a single man and call your book a novel. The freedom one fictional man grants you is immeasurable.”
She says the difference between a memoir and novel is “Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.” Yet, as we follow her around London learning about her mother, the narrator tells us how she would hide details of her real life in her stories when she was younger. In one passage she talks about how this younger writer felt, “terrified that people would see the coded truth.”
Then she says, “Now I don’t give a fuck. Or I do, and I’ve just said that to throw you off the trail.” We’re left to wonder who doesn’t care anymore and who still does? The unnamed narrator or the author writing the veiled memoir?
As the book comes to a close, we are left with a stunning list of reflections about her mother. She comes clean and tells us how she has changed the character of the the narrator of the book. Possibly like a memoirist who edits out the characters around her for simplicity, she has left out a brother, forgotten to mention she is married and a mother.
She says, “The fictional me is the narrator of this book. The actual me is the author.” Though as we hold a book of fiction, we are still left to wonder. Does that mean, the fictional or true author of the book?