Not a Memoir Review
If I’m counting correctly, this is the fortieth edition of my memoir column. Over the past eighteen months, I’ve slowly changed from a casual memoir reader to a memoir aficionado. I used to sit for hours in front of my blank computer screen, not exactly sure where to begin. Now I take detailed notes on the structure, style and theme of every memoir I review. Once I feel that I’ve gotten to the book’s core, I’m ready to review it. This week, I’m doing things a little differently, because I read a very different sort of book. This is because Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir by Ander Monson deconstructs every one of the memoir techniques I have encountered and reviewed in this column thus far.
When I first flipped through Monson’s, uh, not-memoir, I dismissed his writing style as an ostentatious rip-off of essayist and novelist David Foster Wallace. Some chapters are flooded with endless footnotes, while others are written in three columns, some with no margins. Each chapter is littered with small “crosslike glyphs,” (daggers and double daggers) highlighting certain words in the text that, on first glance, appear to lead nowhere. Generally, I’m a proponent of storytellers who use streamlined language to say exactly what they mean. I usually dismiss flowery writing, and especially flowery formatting, as pretentious and unnecessary. I now realize this was a very unfair conclusion to make about Vanishing Point before reading it.
Monson’s not-memoir is a collection of nineteen essays, some of which originally appeared in The Believer, Indiana Review, and other literary magazines. A few of the essays contain photos of found objects like letters and photographs. The essay subjects don’t seem to fit together at first: jury duty, Doritos, Dungeons and Dragons, a YouTube video of a college a cappella group. But the fun of Vanishing Point is that after reading layer after layer of Monson’s seemingly mundane experiences, the reader is left with a surprisingly complete idea of both who the author is and why we read memoirs in the first place.
Monson makes his feelings about memoirs very clear in the first essay in the book, “Voir Dire,” but during my first reading I may have been too distracted by the footnotes and glyphs to notice. In the essay, Monson expertly weaves several stories together—each one revolving around the central theme of how we misremember important information. In one of these intertwining stories Monson judges manuscripts for a nonfiction contest. “I learn that it’s incredibly boring to read manuscript after manuscript of ‘I’s asserting themselves and their claims to truth,” he writes. “Listen to what happened to me, they say. They interpose themselves between the reader and the world so everything is filtered through their shadows, so each I stands between us and actual experience.”
To make his book a different type of experience for the reader, Monson has turned reading Vanishing Point an interactive activity, which is where the glyphs and footnotes come in. When entered into appropriate box on Monson’s website, each word marked with a glyph leads to a photo, an essay, or another fun tidbit to enhance the reader’s experience. At first, the whole thing seemed to me like a marketing ploy to get readers to visit the website. But each marked word is actually a carefully chosen portal into another area of Monson’s life experience. My favorite secret passage leads the reader from the word “vanilla” to a fan letter composed by Monson and addressed to Julie’s Organic Ice Cream. Because of his essay on Doritos and astronaut ice cream, we already know Monson is a big supporter of ice cream sandwiches.
In the essay “Assembloir: Disclaimer,” the author cuts together a variety of different disclaimers that appear at the beginning of other memoirs. I recognized some of the disclaimers from the memoirs I have reviewed in this column. These disclaimers are not specifically credited, but one author warns readers about his own memoir, “The chronology has slipped, before and after often get mixed.” I can’t remember the last time I read a memoir that did not contain a disclaimer like this as protection, lest the author turn out like James Frey. Monson’s own disclaimer, however, is noticeably absent from Vanishing Point’s introduction.
Readers looking for a tale of overcoming the odds or a haunting journey of self-discovery will find they are reading the wrong book. “We want to be reminded of ourselves,” Monson writes. “Uplifted and edified through narratives that are really dreams of what we hope our lives could be like. What if my memoir isn’t edifying? Isn’t uplifting? Doesn’t show us something about what it means to be human? It would do better to forget about its overall effect, to focus on the smaller things, evidence of actual lives.” Monson focuses on some of the littlest things I’ve ever read in an essay, but somehow, he shows us what it means to be human in a far more profound way than the epic memoir journeys fraught with dramatic license.
My favorite part of my own personal Vanishing Point experience was reading “Well That’s One Thing We Got,” an essay about a YouTube video Monson enjoys, featuring the UMass Dynamics a cappella group singing a very sincere version of the cheesy Deep Blue Something song “.” My boyfriend sang in an a cappella group in college, so I called him over to the computer and we both watched the video together. Although I respectfully disagree with most of Monson’s eight pages of praise for the video, my boyfriend and I were inspired to spend a few moments of quality time together, watching our own favorite a cappella moments on YouTube (mine being the a cappella trio of Lady Gaga’s “” at the Martin High School spring concert). When I got the urge to forward the video to Monson, I realized that Vanishing Point is the most interactive book I’ve ever read.
In several of the essays in Vanishing Point, Monson discusses his visit to the largest ball of paint in the world, located in Alexandria, Indiana. Visitors are asked to add a layer to the ball and to take home a small chip of the ball’s paint layers as a souvenir. Both the act of painting the ball and keeping part of it as a souvenir make the visitor feel like he is part of something large, interactive and lasting. Similarly, Monson creates layers of information for the reader to peel away, just like the ball of paint. “We all want to get inside ourselves, split the nut that is the head of someone else,” the author writes. “That’s what sentences are for.”
Books mentioned in this column: