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Something else again

by Tim Pfaff

"How To Write an Autobiographical Novel" author Alexander Chee. Photo: Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
"How To Write an Autobiographical Novel" author Alexander Chee. Photo: Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  

With his second novel, "The Queen of the Night," whose protagonist was famously an opera singer - but, the reader learns, much else - Alexander Chee proved he could write with the best of them. In his new collection of essays, "How To Write an Autobiographical Novel" (Mariner Books), it's his voice that counts.

The title is not a ruse, though Chee's writing tips are likely to be of the greatest benefit to people already immersed in writing, and writing fiction in specific, though the advice about money is salient. In these big-hearted, deeply wise essays, the author addresses the matter - more tender than tricky - of fiction's being a better way to get at truth than pretended, ultimately unachievable objectivity.

The autobiographical novel of the title is his first, "Edinburgh," which arrived on the scene as a kind of breach baby, nearly paperback first. That we don't hear much about this book until deep into these 16 reflections is telling in its own right. As with his novel, Chee has much ground to till for the new seed to germinate of its wont.

Its subject(ive) matter, less the childhood sexual abuse itself than its lifelong outfall, might make for a feeding frenzy in today's Oprah-fied publishing world. At the time, the turn of our bruised-on-arrival century, it generated rejection letters - as much over the mystery surrounding its genre as the difficulty of its subject. Is it a memoir? the questions went. If not, why not?

And what of these new essays? Closely watched trains of thought.

Chee places Maxine Hong Kingston in the capacious pantheon of his artistic forebears, and readers will recall the publisher's subtitle, "A Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," which, for all its intrigue, weighed down her novel "The Woman Warrior" like its tail a soaring Chinese kite.

Both writers take their American mixed-race otherness not as anything so reductive as a theme but, rather, as twice-fertilized soil from which to make the journey of individuation that makes or breaks anyone. As I write, I recall Kingston saying, almost off-handedly, "I don't know how people who don't write endure their lives."

Kingston also spoke, wryly, of the second fortune she passed up by declining to make "The Woman Warrior" a movie or stage script. She said, in paraphrase, After the words told me what order they wanted to be in, I couldn't ask them to get back in line.

So, when Chee looks back at the novel that made him a fiction writer, the light refracts as much forward as back. Understanding, valid and essential at any point, ripens over time. The story's never over.

At their most straightforwardly narrative and entertaining - Chee's two years in San Francisco pop three-dimensionally, his one-night-stand with drag a refining-fire fourth - Chee's words are a chiaroscuro. Hauling ass around town on a motorcycle when not minding the register at A Different Light bookstore, Chee is never more vivid a tragicomedian than he is when being an AIDS activist.

His nomadic life in Manhattan is colorfully picaresque in the manner of Quixote. You learn in the first essay that he is fluent in Spanish (if not in Korean, his father's tongue), but it's the how and why of that modest revelation that impresses more.

With language that's at once adjective- and adverb-averse in its concretion, Chee also whips up the wizardry, bittersweet as it can be. You don't stop to question his conviction that his father died early, rather than at a young age. So, the novel's not dead, the within-memory thought-to-be-imperiled memoir certainly isn't, and the author's father receives the kind of ancestor worship no lesser a first son could give.

If you pay attention to these things, the endangered species of the literary essay is now on the rebound, to the point that almost anything can be called an essay. Even its greatest present-day exponents can turn it into brain-teasing puzzle, dazzling with curlicued profundity, Milton's "Areopagitica" with cusswords. Having thus shown us new ways of seeing, thinking about and talking about things, they can make us feel like fools for not having seen it - or seen through it - all along.

Chee takes the fool-wising-up role for himself, and it's not a pose. We're the wiser for not having been humiliated and the happier in our new wisdom.

Here's his summation of the drag episode, another facet of what he credits Loorie Moore as calling "the consolations of the mask": "I am not the person who appeared for the first time that night. I am the one only I saw, the one I had rejected until then, the one I needed to see, and didn't see until I had taken nearly everything about him away. His face is not half this or half that, it is all something else."


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