But sometimes the narrator tries to pull one over on her audience and insist that this isn’t the gloss imposed by time and distance. Of the little memory, for example:
Thinking of these things now, in fourth grade, I felt they had happened to somebody else. I wasn’t that person anymore. I could make myself teary by singing “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road” to myself, and I would do that, to try to be once again the little girl in the bed, with the tuneless father sitting by. But it didn’t work.
Fiction gives Kaysen the power to jump around in time like this, to see what a fourth-grader is thinking perhaps more clearly than a fourth-grader possibly could. But she does not always wield the freedom well. The jumps in time and verb tense are not always as elegant as they should be. And that reads clearly, I think, as the mark of a memoirist trying to push a memoir through the funnel of fiction and coming out with a mishmash of techniques, up to and including the narrator’s disjointed sense of time. In the aggregate you do, however, get a beautiful, funny, perceptive memoir. I mean, novel.
In fact the traces of memoir are everywhere in Cambridge, and the signals are fairly explicit. The narrator is named “Susanna,” just like the author. She has a similar childhood. We are given details, like the precise time frame in which one of her father’s colleagues would go on to win the Nobel, which seem to be deliberately leading the reader to step outside the text and fact-check her. In other words, although all fiction—hell, all writing—could be called covert autobiography on some level, there is not much cloak-and-dagger here. The advertising copy on the book actually calls this a “novel-from-life.”
That’s a catchall term for novels as different as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, but it can be a rewarding genre for readers—and for writers, who can find a kind of comfort in this classification that so happily sidesteps all those thorny James Frey-ish questions about the distance between reality and art. It can feel like a cop-out at times, because it allows the author to disclaim any responsibility to the cold hard facts while still lending the work the apparently irresistible allure of a true story.
I bristle a bit at the way the genre allows writers to both have and eat cake, but these novels-from-life, like Cambridge, often contain their own brand of wisdom. They are books whose use of the techniques of fiction seems to have an almost political purpose: namely, to make mundane realities seem, well, worth inscribing in print. And there is something very noble, I think, about insisting that there is art in those experiences we would not necessarily call novelistic. And in then being totally honest about the way in which we tend to shape and revise the stories we tell ourselves. In Cambridge’s case, for example, it results in a book with a beautiful sort of narrative ambivalence about what the narrator calls a not-wonderful childhood: “Now that it was over,” Kaysen writes, “I could turn the past into anything I wanted. I could revise the empty space inside me so that it had a better shape: the outline of a happy childhood.”
There is indeed something uniquely worth recording, I think, not just about one’s childhood, but about the way in which we spend our lives revising it into such outlines. Not everyone goes from unhappy apprehension to happy memory; it’s usually the other way around, in my experience. What looks normal and well-adjusted at 20 can, through the lens of warped romantic entanglements at 30, no longer look so rosy. (Let’s not even speak of 40.) Years after the fact, the meanings of the hushed conversations of adults become clear; the tears in your parents’ marriage are no longer shrouded by the faux-authority of adulthood. There is, after all, “self-deception and occlusion” in everyday life, too. And it takes you a lifetime to grow out from your family’s particular brand of it.
Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen. Knopf.
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