January 24th, 2011 / 2:19 am

Deb Olin Unferth and the Double-I

I make a portion of my living helping other people write, rewrite, fix, or otherwise fiddle with their memoirs. Generally speaking, these people are not interested in the Single-I point of view, or the “dispatch from the moment,” or a memoir proceeding entirely in a progression of chronologically linear scenes from the point of view of the person they were at the time of the events they’re offering the reader. The reason is usually a lack of desire for discipline — there are very few tasks more difficult than the task of writing a chronologically linear book in a progression of scenes which are not hijacked by a latter-day narrator who regularly swoops in to essay, explain, make meaning, apologize, or otherwise interrupt the experience the reader is having with the person the narrator used to be. The primary benefit of the Single-I is that it is the closest thing we have in memoir to the simulation of someone else’s experience of life, since life is lived in the moment to moment and offers little in the way of summary, dispatches from the future, and so on. All that comes later, when we impose narrative on past events. Narrative is one of my favorite things, but it is, let’s remember, a fundamentally artificial thing, different in almost every way from the actual experience of living life. All the boring stuff is cut out, all the everyday stuff is cut out, all the sleeping, most of the eating and pissing and pooping, most of the banalities of conversation, etc. (I should note here that the exception that points back to this rule is the craftsmanly recent fiction of Tao Lin, whose last two novels are very interested in restoring these banalities alongside the discipline of the Single-I, and toward interesting ends including reproduction of a kind of self-centered Americanized young person’s Buddhist-ish consciousness — but that’s not what I want to talk about here.)

What I want to talk about is a brief passage from  Deb Olin Unferth’s new memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, a book that decidedly rejects the Single-I point of view in favor of the much more popular alternative, the Double-I. (This terminology is not standard, by the way. I borrow it from my old teacher Lee K. Abbott. I have found it very useful for descriptive reasons, so I’m going to keep using it.)

Quick primer in the Double-I. (Why two I’s?, you’ll say.) The two I’s in question are the “I of the now,” or the teller of the tale, and the “I of the then,” or the person to whom events happened. The “I of the then” corresponds to the narrator in the Single-I account. Let’s say you, at 34-years-old, are the narrator. That would make you the “I of the now,” because it’s now, and you’re I. But here the pronoun fails us. Because the you you are now is I, but the you you were then is also I, yet the I you are now is not the same as the I you were then. So much has changed since you were, say, the 12-year-old “I of the then.” The story is about the things that happened to the 12-year-old, but the teller of the tale is the 34-year-old. If the whole story is told from the point of view of the 34-year-old, we’ll have a 22-year distance on everything that is being reported. We’ll get it mostly in summary, and all of it through the gauzy and distorting lens of memory. Maybe it would be better to say the “machinery” of memory rather than the lens of memory, because memory, it would seem, has agency. It wants some things and doesn’t want others. It is very tied to the you you are now. It has grievances that stem from the experience of the you you were then, but those grievances are different from the grievances that were grieved by the you you were then, because time and experience and knowledge have changed the grievances, or mutated then, or muted or amplified them. Also, the you you were then was only living the story you’re telling, but the you you are now is telling your story for an audience, which means the you you are now has a whole lot of calculations to make in deference to or fear of or defiance of or opposition to your audience, whereas the you you were then will be (so the naive version of the theory goes) constructed from a simple transcription of the pertinent moments, without any kind of censorious or redemptive or otherwise transformative intervention from the you you are now. As regards the central thing narrative imposes — the question of how one makes meaning or doesn’t make meaning or thinks about or otherwise decides upon the experience — the main determining factor is time. The Single-I performs these functions from the final moment of the story, since there is no future from which to perform them. But the Double-I performs these functions from a definite place in the future, and the question of how the past event is interpreted or presented, finally, is subsidiary to the question of how much time has passed between the you you were then and the you you were now. From middle-age, a broken engagement at age nineteen looks very different to the person who once experienced it than it does from, say, age twenty-one. Time plays the changes on the importance, meaning, and interpretation of the past experience.

Here’s the thing: The Double-I is very attractive to most memoirists, because it offers the opportunity to grandstand and manipulate and generally tell the reader how and what to think about everything. In the hands of a really genius expositor, that’s a thrill. Imagine, for example, an entirely expository memoir by David Foster Wallace about the memory of a trip to the grocery store with his mother. No doubt he could thrill a certain kind of reader (one like me) for two or five hundred pages. (This kind of thing, in fact, is the central project of many of Thomas Bernhard’s novels — a deep and deeply subjective and reflective reminiscence upon a past event.)

The problem is that not many people are up to that expository task. But even for them, the Double-I offers an elegant solution: Stay with the “I of the then” as often as possible, especially toward the beginning and middle of the narrative, and stay in scene, and keep your incompetent meaning-maker out of the game until the very end.

That’s not what most people ultimately choose. Instead, they usually split it down the middle. The pattern we get is action (“I of the then”) – reflection (“I of the now”); action-reflection; action-reflection. This pattern accounts for a very large portion of the mediocre memoirs written by writers better compensated than you or me. It does ultimately produce a competence, and there is usually feeling enough produced in the reader to serve the writer’s goals, the central one of which is usually: “Please validate the worth of my life.” (And why not? This is not a motive exclusive to memoirists. They just don’t have anywhere to hide.)

Very rarely, though, we get a really strong writer who uses the Double-I in a manner that at first glance seems to be something like the action-reflection model, but which on closer examination proves to be something different — the reason we’re getting the I of the now and the I of the then close together at book length is because the narrative itself is a conscious attempt to reconcile the past life with the present life, even though the present-day speaker is intelligent enough to know that it’s probably a mostly-impossible task. The moment of convergence is often rendered by way of a metaphor that rises organically from a particular moment in the past. This is almost always the province of poets and fiction writers who have turned their hand to memoir, and, indeed, the Double-I book that does it best is not marketed as a memoir at all, but rather as a work of fiction, and that’s Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

It’s big trouble to talk so abstractly at such length about a matter such as this. I’m doing it because I just finished reading Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution, and, this once, I didn’t read a memoir half-angry the whole time because it could have been so much better. This book is so much better — better made, better felt, better constructed, smarter, and more self-aware — than almost all the memoirs I’ve read in the last five years.

Here is the passage that illustrates the thing I was trying to say. To give context, Deb Olin Unferth has dropped out of college with her Marxist-evangelical boyfriend George to join the “revolution” in Central America. He has recently proposed to her on a roadside in El Salvador, and now they’ve taken a bus to the coastal resort town of La Libertad, hoping to see the ocean. They have secured and lost their first “revolution job” at an evangelical orphanage for war refugee children on account of Unferth’s unwillingness to wear a bra, and they have had their first big fight, and they have said “I love you” for the first time, and they have decided to get married. But when they get to the beach and look out at the water, it is brown, and “streaked with black lines in both directions as far as we could see.”

They meet a man who works at a hotel overlooking the beach, and ask him why the water looks like that. Here’s how the passage ends:

He took us upstairs. We looked down at the water. You could see the heavy streaks across the water, running out into the sea. The man told us the water wasn’t really brown. It looked like that because of algae. It would be gone soon, we should wait a few days, he said.

I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean look like that.

It must be a terrible war to make the water look like that, I thought.

I looked over at George. I wondered if I should be marrying someone who took me to places like this.

We couldn’t have been very high, looking down on the beach, maybe one or two floors up, but in my memory it seems as if we were very high and I could see a long way.

What’s brilliant about this passage, to me, is that in that very last move, where the “I of the now” asserts herself in an otherwise conventional summing-up way, we get something more complicated, because in that very last line (“in my memory it seems as if we were very high and I could see a long way”), the two I’s converge in a way that allows us to see the ocean through both points of view at the same time, and then to understand what is being seen through both points of view at the same time, and, wow-ingly, by using the very same words (“we were very high and I could see a long way”), which we know, because of the writer’s skillful handling of the moment, means two different things to the two different I’s. To the younger self, it seems as if they were very high and she could see a long way, and it’s easy enough to read it as a hopeful metaphor for the future into which the two would-be revolutionaries are bravely embarking. But to the older self, the stress falls on the “in my memory it seems,” which we know from inference is the invocation of an interpretation of the moment which the older self has not only rejected but also will find laughable and mockable throughout the memoir, because, in fact, these two young people are as low to the ground as it gets, and their vision doesn’t allow them to see or understand much at all. Only the great distance of time and the corresponding knowledge and increasing interpretive power it allows will make possible any thing resembling height or vision, and what that height and vision will reveal couldn’t be any more distant from the romantic notions that spurred them to Central America.


  1. Nat

      Brief passage deeply appreciated.

      “We couldn’t have been very high, looking down on the beach, maybe one or two floors up, but in my memory it seems as if we were very high and I could see a long way.”

  2. Yht


  3. FFTIM

      I think, and here maybe I’m being annoying, but there is only the I of now. Did Deb, at such a young age, truly think that it “must be a terrible war to make the water look like that?” And, if so, would she truly have retained the phrase for however many years in order for said phrase to make a miraculous reappearance in her memoir and on HTML? The I of then can’t be. It is far more false than the I of now. It is only the I of now pretending to be young again. If it’s pretending then it must be less trustworthy. If it is less trustworthy then it is less apt to tell a “true” story. The I of now has to be there to say, “listen, I realize that it’s impossible for all this to be entirely true, you see, I’m a narrator, with a lense and a filter, since then I’ve learned to throw Chinese stars, I’ve made a movie film, fallen in and out of love, had much more sex, wiped my ass many more times, bled more, sweat more, have eaten more pancakes, but I remember it like this, of course sometimes my memory has made it better or worse, depending, and now my memories are delivered with stronger word choices,” right?

  4. Anonymous


  5. Kyle Minor

      Well, not really. I suppose it’s always true that the “I of the then” is always artifice — a literary reconstruction. But that’s a different question than whether or not the narrator, as a technical question, has been split into two I’s or not. (For that matter, the “I of the now” is likewise always a literary construction — a persona created by the writer no less than the “I of the then.”)

      The passage I excerpted makes the switch, technically, from one to the other, at “We couldn’t have been very high . . .”

      The passage that precedes it is dominated by the “I of the then,” although, as with the rest of the book, the “I of the now” is allowed to intrude whenever she desires.

      The question of trustworthiness of memoir in general is a fair one. If you can’t buy the conceit at all, then memoir is probably not a genre with which you’ll ever be comfortable. The better Double-I memoirs almost always do something to throw memory and its interpretation into question as part of their very fabric, and this memoir is no exception. The present-day narrator is rather ruthless, in fact, in her interrogation of her past self (a mild dark self-deprecating humor is a primary vehicle, in this book, although she’s not above direct interrogation, either), and that intentional destabilization seems to amplify the reliability of the narration, since it’s clearly not a book that means to be about self-aggrandizement so much as it’s a book that’s grappling with the inadequacies of the past self. (A one paragraph excerpt isn’t enough reading from which to make that determination, so if you really wanted to have a good argument about it, you’d have to read the book. I think you might like it, given the questions you’re raising, which are the questions people almost always raise about the form of memoir in general. Here is a book, I think, that intelligently reckons with them by way of form, tone, and construction of the two personas.)

  6. Anonymous


  7. FFTIM

      Sure, however, is it a change at the narrator level, or is it more of question of focus. In fiction this wouldn’t be a change at all. A narrator can move freely his observations from past to present and there is no change. At the end of The Plague, when Rieux divulges that he is indeed the narrator of the tale, it does not then make him a different narrator. And, if the piece above (and I haven’t read this whole book yet, but I deeply enjoyed Vacation and assume I would appreciate this one as well) is written in the past tense, then there is no I of then. The observations are being made my narrator, at the very least, slightly removed from the actions. In “Emergency,” when Fuck Head drops his “what’s important for me to remember now” he is not stepping further away from the story. He was far away from it to begin with.

  8. Catherine Lacey

      awesome post, kyle

  9. letters journal

      I got a review copy of ‘The Year I Fell in Love…’. This post moves it up my TBR pile a few spots.

  10. Kyle Minor

      It works the same in fiction as in nonfiction. Any first person narration can either immerse itself in a single dramatic present, or can use a latter-day narrator to tell the tale of the sad sack he used to be. At the technical level, if you’re aware of the distinction, you can use it to modulate all the moving parts, especially with regard to the use of time and the scene/summary issue. No doubt it’s the “I of the now” who is pulling all the levers in the Double-I — I think that’s what’s tripping you up in understanding the construction. But that narrator has the ability to reconstruct and inhabit the earlier self — in the technical sense, not in the sense of a photographic or journalistic reproduction or whatever.

      It might be that the first person in general invites a sense in many readers that the narrator isn’t reliable. That’s probably a smart starting point any time anybody is telling themselves about their lives. But that’s, again, an analytical question that is different in kind from the question of how the point of view is technically constructed. (The Plague, by the way, operates differently at the technical level from both the Single-I and the Double-I, but that’s a subject for a different post.)

  11. Winter News | Kyle Minor

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  12. Trhyd


  13. Anonymous


  14. James Yeh

      This is great, Kyle.

  15. FFTIM

      I understand the construction. It’s not that complicated. It’s a dam bright post (otherwise I wouldn’t have commented), but I think something of the terminology feels imprecise to me. Just in regards to narration, or the use of the term narrator. In The Plague, you essentially get Rieux withholding is identity until the end, so he is free to look at himself as a character. Perhaps the distinction should be drawn there. The character I and the narrator I. (I completely realize this is nit picky as hell, but hey). The character then is immersed in the action, able to have thoughts and relay emotions as all characters are able, the pronoun I merely their name, and the narrator then, the one closest to the reader, exists as a single unit. Using your construct there would be infinite narrators. If the “I” on page 18 thought back to the “I” on page 2 another narrator would emerge, and so on.

  16. Kyle Minor

      The idea that you would have infinite narrators is right in the sense that character is constantly changing through time. But I think it’s not a stretch to think about the two I’s as both being progressive through time in a way that is trackable and separable. The point of separation is embedded in the two timelines — the time of the events and the time of the telling. The duration of separation can be of any length, up to the moment before the time of the telling.

      Like any model, it’s going to break down in the face of certain varieties of scrutiny. But I think it’s a useful model not only compositionally but also as an analytical tool, which is how I’m using it here.

  17. Ben Jahn

      Kyle, I liked this post. I think it brings up the question of occasion. Often, the I of then stands firmly in a story-worthy moment. “These events occasioned a telling,” says the I of now. When the double I breaks down, I think it’s because the I of now does not have, or does not reveal, a clear occasion for telling. “Now this is important,” or “This was a big deal then…and now I see why, or now I trust you’ll see why.”

  18. Tim

      Last night I read the excerpt in the most recent Believer and it’s pretty solid, reads quick and punchy, lots of these double reflections, good moments.

  19. FFTIM

      Fine. I agree. Like I said to begin with, I’m being annoying. I can feel it in me. The annoyingness. Good stuff anyhow. Got me thinking and what have you.

  20. Kyle Minor

      I think it’s useful that you raised those intelligent questions. The discussion expands the essay. This is one of the advantages the Internet has over print. Another is that I could write the post last night and have the conversation today, while the book I wrote about is still very present in my mind. I have to wonder about how much enthusiasm writers can muster for their subject five months after they wrote it, after the magazine publishes it and there are letters to the editor that demand a response.

  21. letters journal

      Cool. I will start with the Believer excerpt.

  22. deadgod

      I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment, but he was already too far away, and I could only remember, without resentment, that Daisy hadn’t sent a message or a flower.

      It’s “[t]wo years later” when Nick “remember[s]” the obscurity and the tolerance that he’d experienced standing before Gatsby’s fresh grave, at a time when “Gatsby” and that earlier moment’s “too far away” have become memorable, “Gatsby” having moved closer to Nick’s present as Gatsby recedes from it.

      That’s what ‘memory’ does: the past floods; the future recedes. – ‘temporal horizons’ of any present being a manifold of elastic membranes that filter and, in turn, are changed by concrete particulars (including each other).

      One understands that ‘if you can’t step in the same river twice, then you can’t step in it once’: a memoir will participate in the fictions of unitary personality and accurate (or at least honest) remembering — how else will “my” – or any – perspective get told, however controversially?

      To shuttle transparently, while artfully, between two “I”s is quite a feat, regardless of the fictivity of two “I”s not interfering with each other.

  23. Kyle Minor

      Gatsby complicates matters because it’s an observer-narrator strategy — the narrator is a first person observer whose protagonist and subject is someone else.

      This (point of view) is my favorite subject, because it makes possible things that haven’t yet been invented. I want to post more about it — maybe the next one will be about something I don’t know better than to call “first person subjective omniscience.”

  24. Kyle Minor

      Gatsby complicates matters because it’s an observer-narrator strategy — the narrator is a first person observer whose protagonist and subject is someone else.

      This (point of view) is my favorite subject, because it makes possible things that haven’t yet been invented. I want to post more about it — maybe the next one will be about something I don’t know better than to call “first person subjective omniscience.”

  25. Janey Smith

      Kyle? I and I is a complex term.

  26. Janey Smith

      Kyle? I and I is a complex term.

  27. deadgod

      To me, the protagonist of The Great Gatsby is Nick, not Gatsby.

      It’s Nick whose arc is the story of the story, who changes, who is the hero that must confront the world and learn, who experiences the plot as a journey of/to self-discovery, etc. etc.

      Nick’s maturation, his discovery/invention of his self, his judgement – that’s what the reader has before herself/himself to feel and come to terms with — not so much the sadness of Gatsby’s disappointment – though that’s present, too, thanks to the felicity of the writing – as the sadness that is Nick’s motor for reflection and storytelling.

      Let me put it in this way of nitpicking: Nick’s topic is “the great Gatsby”, but our “subject” is Nick’s inner experience.

      You know, “first-person” by itself communicates the complexity, the paradox, of reliability: what do “I” know? what really happened – especially to “me”??

      – but one needs useful terms. ‘First-person projective apprehension’? [redundant] ‘First-person projection’?

  28. Amy McDaniel

      I really enjoyed this post, Kyle. It sounds like you’ve read an awful lot of bad memoirs, and bad in a particular way. I find that I see a lot of the opposite–writers who want to stay in single-I, telling past events in the present tense, without any kind of reflection or rumination. I think the single-I writer runs the risk of clouding her purpose, of believing the story is interesting just because it happened to them, and not because they are trying to grapple with something from the past. I agree that “life is lived in the moment to moment and offers little in the way of summary, dispatches from the future, and so on. All that comes later, when we impose narrative on past events.” But the smart double-I narrator can surely represent that in dealing with the past. I teach Maus pretty often, and I’m convinced that the story is much more powerful with the framing device (really much more than a framing device) of Art interviewing his father, than it would be if we were just back in the past watching Vladek suffer through the Holocaust.

      I’m curious about your decision to leave the personal essay out of this discussion. There are so many masters of the double-I! In Montaigne, Woolf, Orwell, Didion, White, Baldwin, all the heavyweights, the narrative is in the author’s thinking through of the question, of the past event–how that thinking changes throughout the course of the ruminative essay, and what ultimate, faltering, broken sense the narrator tries to make of life and the past.

  29. Kyle Minor

      That’s actually the strategy in an observer-narrator book, almost always. The object of the narrator’s attention gets not the object’s own narrative, but rather the narrative the narrator imposes on the object. It’s the narrator’s wants, needs, desires, and so on, which are making all the choices about what to observe and what to think of it and how to or not to make meaning of all of it. In the end, the narrative tells the reader more about the narrator than the protagonist, if the reader is sophisticated enough to notice it. The late Zuckerman books are extreme examples of this phenomenon. (In American Pastoral, for example, Zuckerman doesn’t once put himself on the page for the last two-thirds of the book, while ostensibly telling The Swede’s story, even though we know that he doesn’t really directly know much about it at all. He’s inventing it.)

  30. Kyle Minor

      Well, I agree that would have been an interesting thing to discuss. I’d be interested in hearing what you had to say about it, too,

  31. GeoffSchmidt

      Kyle, have you read Julie Doucet’s amazing graphic memoir _My New York Diary_? There’s a lovely, startling bit of convergence there. Thanks for this post!

  32. Kyle Minor

      I haven’t, but I will now.

  33. GeoffSchmidt

      I meant a lovely, startling bit of convergence in the last quarter of the book, and especially on the last page. Graphic narratives (and supermuch graphic memoir) fold time in complicated ways on the page.

  34. Amy McDaniel

      What I think is that if you include the personal essay, what you are commending in Unferth isn’t so very rare as you say, is in fact foundational to the nonfiction genre, and is not in the least exclusive to poet- and novelist-turned memoirists. (What Unferth does isn’t the less brilliant for being less rare, of course.)

      I’m curious–what good memoir is told entirely in the single-I? I would use Wallace in an inverse claim. Very few writers other than he can make a moment-to-moment account like “Ticket to the Fair” interesting, and his ability to do so is due to the way he detaches himself as he is experiencing something, whereas most people need more temporal distance to make lived experience worth reading about.

  35. Kyle Minor

      Wallace can do it either way, I’d say. His psychological acuity when inside a persona (as some of his better fiction attests — “Good Old Neon,” to give one example, which is, I think, pretty close to a nonfictional account of the interiorized life of David Wallace, but who knows for sure?) matches the exteriorized thing he does in some of the nonfiction pieces.

      When I get home with my books, I’ll make a list of Single-I accounts. Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army comes to mind. It — and it could be argued, Revolution — are a hybrid of the personal essay form and the book-length memoir proper. I’m not sure there’s a really sharp line dividing them, since the terms get used so interchangeably and to describe writing in so many different modes, some of which aren’t even dominantly narrative.

      I agree that a lot of this kind of good work is being done at the shorter length. Not as much at book-length, although I’m happy to be proved wrong and get a new cache of books to read.

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