How To Read an Autobiographical Novel
Your “Queer Literature and Theory” teacher throws several book recommendations onto the desk. You pick up How To Write an Autobiographical Novel.
You remember loving Anne Carson’s novel in verse, Autobiography of Red. You remember Tim O’Brien on documenting narratives and making up reality.
Or that the cover design intrigues you. Or that the cover’s texture feels great against your fingers. It doesn’t matter why. What matters is you pick up the book, and you are about to learn something new — first and foremost, what autobiographical fiction is.
You are not too far into the narrative to enjoy the storytelling with indifference. Afterall, it is a “how to” book: how to write, how to read tarot, how to garden, how to live beautifully. You find his advice on a creative writing career in “100 Things about Writing a Novel” eloquent and instructive for a young writer. You memorize and use them at your next writing workshop. Your next assignment: a list memoir. How does he know your life? It’s beginning to seem uncanny.
His discussion of the tarot introduces you to the spiritual world. A week later, you buy Zhou Yi, a Chinese classic on fortune telling.
The writer went to Wesleyan University. You wanted to go there for college, too. Or it could be any college. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is this detail pulls you closer. It could be any detail. You now trust the writer.
He understands intersectionality. Of course he does. He examines race, culture, sexuality, and education. A Korean American spends a summer in Mexico. An alternate location allows identity to exist “more at ease in the world. Lighter.” You, a Chinese in America, know exactly what he is saying. English feels farther from your heart. You write things you didn’t dare write in your mother tongue. You experiment writing in another’s voice. For example, in Alexander Chee’s voice.
“Tonight is one of those nights when I am growing, changing quickly, without warning, into new shapes and configurations.” You don’t realize just yet that he is talking about you. The book is a maze. You are standing at a turning corner in the maze. You can’t predict what comes next after the turn, after the page, or after the turn of the page.
“‘Don’t you dare write about any of this,’ he said, ‘or I’ll have to hunt you down and kill you. With my bare hands.” Either you think of Anne Lamott, who delivered that “remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better,” or you are the one hunting yourself down and threatening to kill yourself. The book has somehow revealed more of you than you wished, and you’re not even the writer.
In each chapter, Alexander Chee turns the narrative around in his hand like a diamond. The stories are distant enough that each allows you to scrutinize a fresh side of the diamond, yet close enough that you recognize them as belonging to the same diamond you have been staring at. An autobiographical novel as a way of reconciling these different sides. Alexander Chee is the diamond. You are also the diamond. He has scattered your sides in the novel. You are on a scavenger hunt.
You don’t want to go on the scavenger hunt.
Chee doesn’t want to go on the scavenger hunt. He makes his statements begin with “the writer,” “the reader,” “one.” He could write paragraphs in third person and entire chapters in second person. He refuses to reconcile. So why should you?
Because you’re already in the maze. There’s no backing out.
You feel like he has told this story before, but slightly differently. You don’t know whether you are dreaming or awake, but you’ve learned to let go. In an autobiographical fiction, reality becomes relative. You lose hold of time and structure. Let go of the urge to figure out whether the story is true or fictional, how many parts which.
Then, it changes secretly, escaping your notice. The novel is no longer Chee’s. It’s yours. You’re in your maze. “Did you base this character on me?” You want to meet and ask him.
“As if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other. When the writing works best, I feel like I could poke one of these words out of place and find the writer’s eye there, looking through to me.” So here’s a sentence. You see the writer’s eye, and you start crying. He reconciles through writing. You reconcile through reading.
You poke the word out, and you see the side of yourself that you’ve suppressed for years. “Look at me,” it growls. Its blood stains the hole that you poked into the page. You close your eyes. But you have to keep reading, so you open them again. The smell of blood in your nose for the rest of the book.
You look at the cover again. Words circling and swirling around Chee (or the photograph warps him, so it is only someone who looks like Chee) like walls of a maze. You are walking through the maze. You’re getting to him. Suddenly, the picture in the center becomes one of yourself. You realize you are getting to yourself. Somewhere lost in the walls, you find you and Alexander Chee to be one and the same person.
You’re both writers, so you start to write like him.
The intensity of the red cover now concerns you. You put down the book, because “anyone who unhappily saw themselves in your characters will most likely see themselves, even if they were not described.” You’ve fallen too deep into the rabbit hole of a stranger’s writing. Reading has always been more than entering an alter fictional reality.
You make it out of the maze, safely or not. The red saturates you, hanging on your veins like a wet cloth. You have not collected all sides of your diamond, so you return to the maze again. This time, willingly. Give me another scavenger hunt, you ask of Chee. Go make up your own, he answers. How? You look up in confusion. Well, here’s a manual, he throws How to Write an Autobiographical Novel onto the desk.