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.