It feels almost wrong to critique anyone’s memoir because it feels as if you’re saying, “your life wasn’t interesting enough; your life hasn’t entertained me” which not only feels a little crass but in instances such as Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is also far from true.
Unlike most memoirs, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays, many of which had been previously published. The beauty of an essay collection is that, on its own, an essay has to do a lot of work to impress itself on its reader; but putting a series of essays together demonstrates the way that life stories coalesce to make something beautiful. A collection like this shows how a series of seemingly insignificant moments are always more than what we originally believe them to be—we just need to take the time to think about it. In choosing to format his memoir in this way, Chee gives the reader the opportunity to find the threads that connect, to piece his life together—an exercise that he has also recently done.
Yet at times, the natural beauty of Chee’s chosen format feels undermined by what feels like the forced lessons that the reader is meant to get out of the essays. Chee loves a great metaphor, and throughout How to Write an Autobiographical Novel he uses many of them to get his point across. Sometimes this works beautifully—a exploration of Chee’s relationship to money that’s really about loss and familial relationships (“Inheritance”); a tale about starting a rose garden that’s a lesson in fierce resilience (“The Rosary”). But at times, these fall flat and stop the reader from having much faith in the lesson they’re supposed to learn.
Because of this, there were times when I found myself feeling disengaged and early on, I was ready to give up and move on. However, I continued and I’m grateful that I did. I found that the latter half of the collection was more engaging and essays like “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “Becoming an American Writer” were both touching and connective. Earlier essays such as “After Peter” and “The Writing Life” were also favourites because they felt genuine to the Alexander Chee that was revealed in the later essays.
Overall, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel feels like required reading for young writers, as both a reality check and a comfort. Nobody said being a writer was easy but Chee’s memoir shows that it can be worth it.