The question of whether or not one should write a memoir is usually posed as a question of whether or not one has lived enough of a life. Have you been important to history, or have you lived through momentous things—and if not, why should I care? But the question should be a little larger, and include how the memoir can also be an exercise of style—an aesthetic exercise performed on the circumstances of one’s life, defying the expectations of that form, such as John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame, or Theresa Hak Yung Cha’s Dicteé.
Clifford Chase, author of the new memoir The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities, is very much involved in an aesthetic exercise. The first few pages can make you feel as if you’re in the company of a brilliant if distracted friend, that friend who doesn’t always return to his last thought and then picks up again on the next one as if of course you know what he’s talking about—a friend who is always amusing, even if you don’t quite understand him, until you do understand him—and you see he was never that eccentric at all. It was just that the scope and scale of what he was telling you was simply much larger, something visible to you only once you arrive in the place he was taking you to all along.
“I write this,” he declares in the first pages, “in the hope that aphorism-like statements, when added one to another, might accrue to make some larger statement that will placate despair.” The memoir is constructed mostly of one-sentence aphoristic paragraphs, and Chase offers instructions for how to understand the spaces between the paragraphs; these change, alternating in relationship to the period in Chase’s life he’s writing about. In the section where he is at college, discovering his attractions to men:
For now, let the white space between these sentences stand for what couldn’t be seen then; or what can’t be remembered now; or the open, bare-bones arrangement of a B-52’s song (drum kit, guitar, cheesy keyboard, toy piano)—my soundtrack that winter and spring.
Or many years later, on a trip to Egypt, with his boyfriend, John:
Here, the space between sentences might suggest the gap between the part of me that was happy with John and the part of me that wasn’t.
The aphorisms are organized into sections, the titles of which do help—each fragment torques against its section title. Here, in the section titled “The Tooth Fairy,” he goes to Rome after having a molar pulled:
THOUGHT IN ROME: Perfectly cooked squid is like an extra-firm mattress for the teeth.
“I didn’t realize it would be so tarted up,” said John in the ancient church that had been redone in the Baroque style.
“I love La Dolce Vita because rather than making Marcello reform or ‘find himself,’” I wrote, “it allows him simply to go further into depravity.”
“They’re so tall!” I said of the many sycamores, which were just getting their leaves.
After a week my tongue grew accustomed to the gap in my molars, and even began to caress the gap’s edges lovingly.
“That meal will go down in history,” I said, taking one last bite.
In exchange for the tooth, I had at least been granted the vivid experience of losing it.
Coming down through the billowing mosaic-clouds: God’s hand.
As we ate our gelato, we decided we liked Rome better than Paris.
Journal: “Any single moment could be definitive and final, just as the world might end at any moment.”
On our archeological tour beneath St. Peter’s, the Vatican guide informed us that the early Christians depicted Jesus as the sun: “They didn’t know what he looked like then, because that was, of course, before the Shroud of Turin.”
Rome, the molar, the orthodontist, God, film, morality: All pull across the page, and soon we are on to his current level of job satisfaction, his anti-anxiety meds, terrorism, AIDS, the war in Iraq, Internet porn, old copy he wrote for ads, his parents as they once were, his parents as they approach death. These quick movements from the banal to the political to the momentous can be frustratingly tantalizing at first. It felt at times not so different from reading a favorite writer on Twitter and wishing the tweet was a whole essay—Go back to that! you want to say. More about that! But soon the tension of the pieces of this life feel more like something Anne Carson would do under the same circumstances, if she were, say, a gay man reaching middle age, with a dog and a boyfriend, trying to survive late capitalism and despair. He is elliptical, but his book is not purposeless.
Fragmented literary forms, when mishandled, can seem like archaic relics of a previous era’s literary avant garde. But they have always seemed to me to be necessary; the way they are broken helps them fit around the shape of something that could not be described if the form was whole. As you read along in The Tooth Fairy—and you should read along—by about Page 30 you can see Chase is not interrupting himself so much as moving threads along a loom much larger than the one you imagined at first. In Chase’s aphorisms and in the gaps, there is a shape implied, something seen in the corner of his eye, building itself as he writes. He is trying to reach for a grip on something that might ordinarily be unbearable to him and the reader both—these are not simple complaints.
The effect soon has more in common with the movements of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, but instead of moving on with each new paragraph to another friend in the circle, we move across several epochs of Chase’s life: post-9/11 New York City, California where he is helping his parents as they age, Santa Cruz as he faces that the straight heroic older brother he idealized when younger has come out of the closet and, after contracting AIDS, will die. As these stories develop alongside each other, symmetries appear, and in those symmetries understanding, compassion, and self-forgiveness. For example, here in the section “As If,” describing his first years in New York and his relationship with a girlfriend known only as E., he comes to understand the question of whether he is gay or not gay, closeted or not closeted, is complicated:
That Christmas, in California, my mother lifted the pink nightgown from its splashy department store box, a gift from my father. “Ah,” said, pleased, and Ken took a picture.
The reason this tale is bigger than sexual preference is my mother.
The ways that being with E. resembled being the particular child of this particular mother.
My running argument with her over her complaints about my father.
The difficulty of even getting to her through the fog of her grudges.
Her stories about him went back years and years, and from childhood I’d been required to listen to them, or she’d withdraw.
And so it felt natural to put myself aside to get love.
Fans of Chase’s earlier work will remember that this is not his first memoir. He debuted with The Hurry-Up Song, a more conventionally structured memoir of his brother Ken. His brother’s journals then were the other shoe waiting to drop—Chase couldn’t, at the time, bring himself to read them. His mother’s death, however, means Ken’s journals are finally his, and this time he reads them:
Ken died of AIDS in 1989. A few years later I published a book about it, titled The Hurry-Up Song.
I say "about it" instead of "about him" because the book is a portrait of the author losing his brother, rather than a portrait of the brother himself. Whatever the reader sees of Ken is exclusively from my point of view.
Almost as if reflected in my glasses.
He has braced himself against the possible discoveries inside—afraid the journals reflect back some unwanted, unhappy memories the brother had of him, afraid he disappointed his brother. Instead, he finds he is strangely absent from his Ken’s grudges—almost absent from the journals entirely. He appears in just one quizzical entry. Chase is left to recuperate his memory of his brother, unable to project what is in fact his own disappointment with himself.
At the end, the reason for the memoir’s seemingly amusing, possibly slight subtitle, Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities, becomes clear. Chase has made a catalog of what he has sacrificed for both his personal gods, such as his mother, father, and brother, and for bigger, more impersonal ones, such as the question of being gay or being straight, writing, public relations, terrorism, gods that have run his life and the lives of those around him. Here are the sacrifices, then, in these aphorisms, but also what returns from these offerings—the tooth, after all, is left under the pillow for the tooth fairy in the hope of receiving a coin in return. And so when I say the fragmented style of The Tooth Fairy is an exercise in aesthetics, it is not to accuse it of being some decorative thing—aesthetics can make us knowable to ourselves, and thus to others, can make something out of one’s old grief and despair that has the feeling of that ancient divine gift, the blessing.
The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities by Clifford Chase. Overlook.