Writing Not the Whole Story History
(United Artist Books, 2011)
In writing a memoir, an author enters an ambiguous terrain: is the primary objective to compile a history, or to tell a story? And is there a productive tension between the two narrative endeavors—history and literature? A memoir has the subjectivity of literature, but its narrative ends are largely communal: most memoirs strive toward a universal message that uses the subject’s story as a case in point. They are meant to provide life lessons. They are meant to bear witness to the value of being human.
Ted Greenwald’s Clearview/LIE is a memoir, but it subverts many narrative traditions of memoir-writing through poetic techniques, mainly fragmentation, repetition, temporal shifts, and tonal rebellions. While it does assert “life lessons,” it does so through the quick associative thinking of brief anecdote and summation, and so avoids the typical memoir’s labored endgame.
In fact, Greenwald’s intelligence is such that, open to any page, and there’s something to take away. Some of the best aperçus relate to tasks equally attuned to living well in the world and to writing:
Everything news to me, where I get interested in listening carefully to people
our paths cross.
Years later, summation, always think pretty much anyone’s interesting, just have to be a good listener.
Eventually, whoever it is, any stranger will tell you their most interesting story.
That’s something to live by.
The book’s recollections are personal, familial, and literary, and the sense-making function of recollection—looking back, ordering, finding meaning—happens on each level. The author’s sensibility is poetic and pragmatic. Here, his poetic side: “In an Irish sense, not just the story it’s in the telling. / To me, how it sounds. The words. The almost mathematical elegance how they go together how they sound how and what they mean and what’s the feel.” Here, the pragmatism of his experimentalist practice: “Get going keep going things take care of themselves”; “A notion, see the beginning, see the end, you figure in-between.”
The book is a crucible of cultural detail. As it reveals one person’s culture, it illuminates a shared culture—the borough of Queens in the second half of the 20th century.
As a document of culture, it demonstrates something integral about how nouns function within history and memoir writing. Within the generic frame of memoir, nouns are meant to be broadly representative: each experience has a point, and so each noun veers toward symbolic resonance. All concrete nouns, at least, represent the cultural moment, proper nouns included: Red Ryder BB guns, the New York Post, Woolworth’s, a Reichian shrink, Shirley MacLaine. These are nuanced signposts for a certain generation familiar with the fraught crossroads of New York’s I-295 and I-495. And to the uninitiated, they have enough reach to mark the culture broadly in its time. The interested but uninitiated reader can return to these nouns as the fodder for research and understanding.
Concrete nouns (things) are primary to history. People may be more interested in events, yet without these nouns, events could not take place. Once an historical event ends, nouns reemerge to assert their primary value. They are the signifiers of the past. They remain as nostalgic tokens of events: documents of and testaments to moments whose meaning we wish to understand within a developing narrative.
But history, as it has been written, contains assumptions about cultural value and thus circumscribes its telling to specific spheres of life. By and large, its narratives have been those of the grandest stages; its narratives have been those of nation and ideology. Poetry, or the poetic, calls for the explosion of that value system.
Clearview/LIE is a history that history could never have written. Its history is both a clear view on things and a subjective artifice, a lie. It is equally two things—the Clearview and Long Island Expressways—and a history of these roads’ delimited area. The collection of nouns that the book presents is a story in itself, and Greenwald’s freeing this cache of knowledge from the narrative gears of typical memoir-writing means that this history’s immanent value is not only preserved but makes possible a new perspective.
As the author collects and recollects things and experiences, the essential emerges. Its message is clear, a message that Greenwald has earned the right to express through a lifetime of listening to his own teachings: Rely upon experience, be your own mensch, soak in as much as possible, and don’t let society break you.
Matt Reeck's translation Class Warrior—Taoist Style from the French of Abdelkébir Khatibi is available this fall from Wesleyan UP. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter, and co-edits Staging Ground magazine.