on One More Theory About Happiness, a memoir by Paul Guest (Ecco)

I turned to Paul Guest’s memoir One More Theory About Happiness because he has written poems like this:

ON THE PERSISTENCE OF THE LETTER AS A FORM

Dear murderous world, dear gawking heart,
I never wrote back to you, not one word

wrenched itself free of my fog-draped mind
to dab in ink the day's dull catalog

of ruin. Take back the ten-speed bike
which bent like a child's cheap toy

beneath me. Accept as your own
the guitar that was smashed over my brother,

who writes now from jail in Savannah,
who I cannot begin to answer. Here

is the beloved pet who died at my feet
and there, outside my window,

is where my mother buried it in a coffin
meant for a newborn. Upon

my family, raw and vigilant, visit numbness.
Of numbness I know enough.

And to you I've now written too much,
dear cloud of thalidomide,

dear spoon trembling at the mouth,
dear marble-eyed doll never answering back.

It’s good to know when you’ve written too much. Writing to Robert Lowell in 1960, Elizabeth Bishop spoke of “seeing some poems around by an Anne Sexton” and “her kind of egocentricity that is simply that … I feel I know too much about her.” (Bishop is mildly chiding Lowell for having written a blurb for Sexton’s book.) In any event, the brilliant, bitter thrust of grief into form allows Guest’s poem to loom larger than the imposing “I” within it. His more general challenge, in fact, may be that everything depends on virtuosity and extremity, as if (or since) the stricken body (of man or poem) cannot relax into itself.

GuestCover.jpgIn the poem he asks the world to “take back the ten-speed bike,” but in his memoir he lugs it back himself. At age twelve, Guest was thrown off a bike and suffered a paralyzing trauma to his spinal cord. One More Theory About Happiness tells the story of his life with quadriplegia. The plunging energy and downstage persona of his poems give way to a much more conventional temperament and mode of expression in the memoir. The voice leans closer to the damaged boy of twelve than to the 36-year old poet with three acclaimed collections on the shelf.

Guest was admitted to Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta for treatment in the months after his accident. The tone and diction of the following excerpt about his discharge from the clinic are typical of the entire narrative:

“For the first time in almost six month, no nurses woke me early, sponged me clean before I wanted, and dressed me for the day. My parents were there, packing my things, gathering my clothes and taking cards I’d received down from the wall. I had little to bring home. It didn’t take long to erase my presence. I felt sad to think another person would be admitted that day and assigned the same space that had been mine for so long. Sad for that person’s unknown fate, for the rough months which awaited him, but sad, really, that I was leaving. No more complex than that.”

The memoir retains the sound of a child’s openhearted, vulnerable acceptance. He says that at age 14, “I had reached the end of the body’s capacity to heal itself. There was no more. Though this was something too painful for loved one to hear, who kept a vigil in their hearts for me, I had made my peace with it. This was my body and this was my life.”

Why this rather flat affect in the prose, a rendition “no more complex” than the simply stated facts? “In situations like this, when a stranger’s grief appears ready to ignite,” he writes, “I tried to tamp down their sense of my suffering … There was nothing I hated more fervently than playing that imaginary role. A consolation to others but not to me.” The flatness, then, is a pin to pop a stranger's gratuitous grief. Guest says he disapproves of those who believe “God allowed to happen what he hated … so that what he loved might be accomplished” -- but he's written a book in a manner that will appeal to those very people.

Guest_0.jpgIn his poetry, Guest grabs his listener and cancels the possibility for consolation, or rather, he replaces consolation with the gratifications that come from full acknowledgement of the world as it is. There, he revels in freedom and the undeniability of deep connection with others. The electricity of the language makes this happen. But in his prose, there is no such release, no special dynamic. Reflexively, he is more guarded, his tone evenly considerate but carefully deflated (and marketable). He knows everything in advance and so do we. There is only the plot to be consumed and it is a thin soup. With one hand, he points to his exceptionalism. With the other hand, he gestures modestly.

One More Theory About Happiness hopes to ride its simplicity all the way to stardom and please everyone, but some readers may demand more texture, originality of thought, and tensile writing than provided by Guest. Despite his bristling at the consolation freaks, his memoir easily fits in Barnes & Noble's "inspiration" section. The search for love emerges as a theme, “longing is the body’s true lesson.” The story itself is cleaved in two – the first part deals with boyhood and his return to school, and the second part finds Guest in college and grad school, a poet in the making, writing with a mouth pen. Perhaps his editors advised him to downplay the poetry (it barely appears). Instead, we have to bear with a gagging description of a new poem as “unfolding in my imagination like a sheet of hammered silver, bright and friable.”

While his poems focus tightly on and collaborate intimately with his reader, Guest’s memoir is substantially more aloof and vocally dilute. I surrendered to it anyway, even though, for my tastes, he has “written too much” and become too well understood for a poet – yet I’m also certain that readers with a less blighted attitude than I have about memoirs will hear only his honesty. But as Anatole France said about a dog who humps your leg, "Sure it's honest, but who needs it?"

I’ll continue to prefer – and keep returning to – a poem like his “User’s Guide to Physical Debilitation” and its crushing final lines:

It is our hope that this guide
will be a valuable resource
during this long stretch of boredom and dread
and that it may be of some help,
however small, to cope with your new life
and the gradual, bittersweet loss
of every God damned thing you ever loved.

[Published May 4, 2010. 208 pages, $24.99 hardcover]

Of related interest:

A review of Sarah Manguso’s illness memoir The Two Kinds of Decay

A review of Sven Birkert’s essays on memoir, The Art of Time: Then Again

A review of Lucia Perillo’s memoiristic essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing

Guest's memoir

Why did he write this book is what I want to know. He'll get his 15 minutes of fame. My parents used to read Readers Digest and his writing here would fit just fine there. I can hear my mother saying "How wonderful that this boy got to go to graduate school and become a poet." What bothers me is that Guest pretends this isn't the response he's looking for when it's exactly what he's constructed. We should expect to see him on Oprah any time now.

a fast read

Be flattered that I actually went out and bought and read a copy of this book this pm because of yr review! I agree with Collin K about preferring simplicity and modesty over showtime in general, about Guest vs Burroughs specifically. But in some of my favorite memoirs, humility isn't a factor at all. How about Art Pepper's amazing Straight Life or the more recent memoir by John Rechy? There is no false modesty in Guest's book, it rings true to me. But I have to agree with the review that the language is dull. Maybe you didn't say that exactly. The situation he writes about is moving as a fact, but the writing doesn't move me. It reads like the kind of book you might write quickly if a big time editor tells you hey you should write your memoir! That would probably be a hard thing for an ambitious writer to resist. So maybe there's more of a hope for showtime in Guest's simplicity than at first meets the eye?

On One More Theory

That's a very interesting review. But let's please calm down. Do we ever call a house to fall on anyone, shoes poking out from underneath, a rescue, the ordeals of operations, and a long, long road toward the recovery of the spirit? It's best not to do that. How any memoir of that experience is "marketable" I think is way beyond the reach of our discourse. I do feel however that the real matter here, the point, is probably the ever-there of the divide between poetry and prose. Might there be some subjects we would prefer to have poeticized, which as readers (in that way) we are more comfortable reading about than we are those subjects rendered prosaically (in some other way)? If so, then you know that all this is about distance rather than posture -- which is something that paras and quads know a great deal more about than we do.

Memoir

I'll take Paul's straightforward, concrete narrative over someone like Augusten Burrough's florid "recollections" any day. I want a memoir to inform me about someone's life, and it doesn't have to be poetic to do so, even if the writer is a poet. And, please, more cracks on Sexton? Really? Seriously?

I love this honest

I love this honest review--one that is not so effusively positive, but in such a way that is framed with your obvious love of poetry and Guest's poetry.

get real Ron

There is a whole caregiving and caregetting oriented subculture in the US feeding off what you call "illness narratives." The Guest memoir is standard fare even though he purges most of the overt heartstring plucking from his language. You mention Lowell and Bishop, but can you imagine either of them penning a memoir at 35? Harper Collins like all big publishers sells books based on an author's fifteen minutes of fame and Guest now has got his and the only reason he's got it is quadriplegia and the only reason Harper will publish such a book is that it feeds the subculture mentioned above. A big market. But since you like Guest's poetry so much, I'll order his most recent one now.

Silly to pick on caregivers

I am one of those people who proudly "feed off" Paul Guest's writing, anyway his first two books of poems. I will read his memoir too thanks to Ron's article if only because it sounds like Guest has tried to write something that's less sugary than the typical illness memoir and that perhaps a broad but intelligent audience can still appreciate. What's wrong with that? As for the "subculture" you seem to be sneering at Jack, you never know when you may find yourself a part of it. Watch out that a house doesn't fall on you too.