Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 13, 2011

Edmund White, _My Lives: An Autobiography_

THIS MAY SERVE as counter-evidence to David Shields's thesis in Reality Hunger (see LLL, December 2010). White drew on many of the same experiences and encounters he writes of here in his trilogy of autobiographical novels, A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, and as far as I'm concerned, the fictional version takes the prize, hands down. (Any list of the 50 greatest post-WW II American novels that does not include White is not to be trusted.) Nor is it merely a case of déjà lu; the presentation here just seems more diffuse, more loosely associative, generally of a lower wattage.

I started reading this book two years ago, got about 70 pages in, and paused; picked it up a year ago, read another 70 pages, paused again; picked it up again this summer, and pushed on through. I've never before been so slow to finish a book by White (and this is the tenth I've read). Whatever it is I find irresistible about White's writing, this book does not have in abundance.

It has some amazing chapters, to be sure. It's arranged by topics (e.g., "My Shrinks," "My Women," "My Blonds") rather than by chronology, and the chapters devoted to topics that White has not so thoroughly mined in his fiction -- "My Master," "My Europe," "My Genet" -- are echt White. Even so, I found myself wishing he had used some of this material for fiction -- his astonishing portrait of Foucault, for instance.

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