My new novel, Bleeding Kansas, purports to be set in the part of Kansas where I grew up. I've provided photographs of"my childhood home"and of me with my "brothers." The truth is, I was raised by space aliens, who assumed human form only during the day; at night they committed such bizarre and unusual acts that even fiction, let alone the memoir could not do them justice. I thought it would be more credible to create a middle-America background.
The fake memoir is not new, but it is a compelling part of the contemporary cultural landscape. The most recent to be unmasked: Margaret Jones, who traded her affluent LA upbringing in for a childhood spent among the gangs in South Central LA (Love and Consequences, Riverhead). Kakutani herself reviewed it glowingly in the Times two weeks ago, although she said "...some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times." Turns out, because they were a novel. (the review was so glowing that Jones's real-life sister outed her. Talk about sibling rivalry. Fortunately my birth family are still on the planet Zorg, no danger there.)
And then there's the Belgian, Misha Defonseca, whose harrowing memoir of the Shoah includes being raised by wolves in the French forest--translated into 18 languages, made into a French film.
James Frey seems pretty benign compared to Defonseca's abrogation of one of the most dehumanizing, suffocating episodes in human history.
I used to think writing was the process of turning emotional experience into stories so that you could make sense of it, and perhaps help others to make sense of their own lives. But it almost seems as though we are so remote now from real experience that we prefer the ersatz, we need it to be shocking--let there be lots of rape, crack, prison guards, let's get down into it with both hands and cover ourselves in it. And then walk away to the next faux thrill. I'm not putting this very well; it isn't quite clear to me. But what happened to traveling much in Concord?