Friday, May 20, 2011

In Which I Get to the Book About the Drag Queen with Goldfish Boobs

I don't think of myself as a non-fiction junkie. Really. I write fiction. I think I read fiction. I think this is mostly all I read until I look at my reading list from last semester to sum it up for my advisor, and realize that nearly HALF my reading list was memoir. HALF!!!

Let's just admit it: I have a memoir problem.

And now that my reading for the semester is done and I have three weeks stretching in front of me to read whatever I want, you know what is on my nightstand? Three memoirs. Sigh.

The thing is, it isn't even about reading the truth, because I don't believe most of what's in these books anyway. When people - anyone and not just authors - look back at their lives, they see it through a filter. A lens of emotions and perspective and information that came later. They make up dialogue - some of which may have happened in some form but not exactly that way, and some of which is what they wanted to say or have said to them. Authors have to create plots and story arcs and timelines that work for readers, making interesting things of what might be dull, leaving out the seemingly meaningless.

But people - especially nearly real people - are interesting.

Take my newest book... one that, if you've read this blog for a few months you might recognize:

I Am Not Myself These Days... the story of the seven-foot-tall New York Drag Queen who sashays around the city with goldfish in his clear bubble bra.

I honestly laughed about this book for days after blindly buying it without having any idea what it was about. If you knew me in person, you'd know this is completely NOT what I'd pick up, even if it was memoir.

But now that I'm nearly done with it, I can say it is not funny, and I am not laughing. Which is not to say it isn't a good read, or that I can easily put it down at midnight when my eyelids are drooping, because I can't. Despite the amount of R-rated language, which tends to turn me off, the story itself is riveting. But depressing and sad, because under the makeup and fun costumes and active nightlife, this writer is an alcoholic and possibly a drug addict, in a brutal and unhappy relationship, with a job he  can barely get sober long enough to do.

But, and this is a pretty big but, I don't believe half of it is real. I just don't. The author writes about a period of time in his life where he pretty much is drunk nearly all the time. He's drinking 3-4 glasses of vodka (which sounds like "glasses" rather than "shots") an hour for nine hours at a time. He blacks out often, sometimes on park benches, sometimes in subway trains, sometimes in stranger's houses whom he can't remember. And yet, he can remember details of the nightlife when he's 18-glasses of vodka to the wind, conversations, impressions, emotions. He can describe vividly the crowd and the music even as he describes himself as unable to stand upright without a wall and slurring his words so badly he can't be understood.

There are also lines of coke and the occasional crack and meth. He's beat senselessly at least once, being kicked in the face and head so brutally he passes out. He survives weeks on end with less than an hour of sleep a night. And yet he recalls it all with a sober clarity that defies explanation.

In fact, the fact that this guy can survive at all is a mystery.

There are other things in the book I question as well - aspects of a seedy underground where people pay thousands of dollars to be tied up naked and belittled and beaten to escape their CEO-lifestyle, for one. Not that I don't think some of this exists, and I do realize I lead a very clean, sheltered life, but the levels at which some of this occur - and the rate at which they reoccur - feel exaggerated for effect. And trust me, when you're a seven-foot-tall drag queen with goldfish in your boobs, there's not a lot of need to exaggerate other things.

The thing about this book is that it would have been fascinating as a novel. As a memoir, I don't buy it all, and I can't even identify with the parts I might believe. So the genre label here doesn't really help for me.

The funny thing is this: last night, while winding up the book and reading the "Author's Path to Publication" in the back, his mentor and first reader was James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces that I wrote about yesterday. Irony? Maybe. And maybe he should be glad Oprah never came calling at his door.

(I can't say I'd unequivocally recommend this book. Clearly the subject matter - and often the accompanying language - is not for everyone. I would have said it was not for me. But it is well-written and easy to get lost in and despite my wariness about it, I do have to say it was an interesting read.)


  1. I don't read as many memoirs as I'd like. I admit to being endlessly curious about what makes others tick, and the drama and story arcs people seem to be able to creatively dig out of their lives is fascinating to me. Hence, I love memoirs. And yet I hardly ever read them. Must remedy this soon!

  2. I've never heard of this book. I'm not a big fan of modern-day memoirs, but I do love a good book about someone who lived through the war period. I don't know why...*wink wink*

    I wonder if these modern-day memoirs stretch credibility more than memoirs from, say, the World War 2 era, or if memoir itself is inherently going to have these problems?

    One of the most compelling memoirs I ever read was called "A Woman in Berlin." I wrote a review of it over at my WW2 blog.

  3. Memory is a tricky thing, and I have no doubt that what memoirists cannot remember they will invent, as long as it fits the story. I think these books should be marketed as "creative non-fiction". ;-)

  4. The genre I am drawn to is realistic fiction. Looks like memoir may fit into that category from to time!

    Recenty I read retired NHL player Theo Fluery's memoir 'Playing With Fire.' He also was a 'successful' drug and alcohol addict. The book was badly written, jumping all over in time. But, interestingly, the bad writing, the lack of editing, did make the book seem authentic to the facts, and a good read. I'm no expert on the publishing industry, but maybe memoir should be published more raw than other genres without the rules of dialogue, scene structure etc. Maybe than the author is less likely to embellish events. Just a thought!!

  5. K.M. It's hard to read all the books we love! I love Historical Fiction - I don't think I've ever read one I didn't love. But I don't read them nearly enough. :)

    Must remedy that, too! Maybe with yours!