Making the Case for the Surreal Memoir
Pushing the Limits of Form, from Leonora Carrington to Wendy C. Ortiz
What makes for an ideal memoir? It could be an incisive story of a life (or part of a life), told with veracity and a precise attention to detail. It might be a work of prose that finds fascinating thematic overlaps between its author’s life and some moment in culture of history. Or it could be a glimpse into a point in time that fascinates some ideal reader based on the events it describes. One commonality that these share, however, is a realist aesthetic.
There’s an understandable groundedness to most memoirs—which makes sense, especially in light of the scandals that erupted a decade and change ago when James Frey’s bestselling memoirs were revealed to be less nonfictional than was previously believed. (Though the “nonfiction versus autofiction” debate is also nowhere near being resolved.) But there’s another approach to memoir that can be dramatically effective at conveying the author’s essence without blurring the facts or venturing into Herzogian “hysterical realism.” Some of the most effective ways of recounting a memoir emerge when their authors embrace the weird. There are a host of ways one can do this, each veering away from traditional realism in a way that illuminates their authors’ lives in unexpected ways—while still remaining decidedly nonfictional.
Certain life stories—or elements of lives—can best be evoked through prose that veers into the surreal. Or, in at least one case, Surrealism proper. Most of the writings of Leonora Carrington are bizarre and unsettling journeys into mythology and the visceral, prose explorations of some of the same themes and motifs that she explored in her visual art. Her short memoir Down Below is somewhat different: for one thing, it’s her only work of nonfiction. It charts a particularly gut-wrenching period in Carrington’s life: when she suffered a mental breakdown after the Nazis invaded France.
The events documented in Down Below took place in 1940; Carrington began writing about them three years later. In her introduction to the 2017 edition of Down Below, Marina Warner calls the book “an unsparing account of the experience of being insane.” And throughout the book, Carrington evokes this mental state through a blend of the factual and the ecstatic. Some passages evoke the everyday aspects of her daily life grappling with an increasingly harrowing situation—at times reminiscent of William Seabrook’s Asylum—while others venture into the same ritualistic, metaphorical, and sacred aspects that she channeled in her fiction. To wit:
I ceased menstruating at that time, a function which was to reappear but three months later, in Santander. I was transforming my blood into comprehensive energy—masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic—and into a wine that was drunk by the moon and the sun.
Had Carrington’s book simply been an account of her wartime institutionalization and her grappling with the authoritarianism around her, it would have been gripping enough. But the addition of these leaps into the ecstatic make it more singular. One can trace a fairly direct literary line from this to Wendy C. Ortiz’s 2016 book Bruja. Ortiz describes her book as a “Dreamoir,” defined in part as “a narrative derived from the most malleable and revelatory details of one’s dreams, catalogued in bold detail.”
What that means in practice is months upon months of short vignettes, in which figures and places from Ortiz’s life recur in different permutations. The presence of dream logic here is understandable: several of these dreams take place in Olympia, Washington—but “Olympia-that-is-not-Olympia” also shows up as a distinct location. Each short vignette stands well on its own, but the cumulative effect reveals recurring motifs—a sense of dislocation, questions of borders and travel, sublimated familial violence—that slowly emerge. It’s an elegant and subtle way to evoke these concerns in prose. There’s no analysis provided, simply the raw stuff and bizarre imagery of dreams.“It’s an elegant and subtle way to evoke these concerns in prose. There’s no analysis provided, simply the raw stuff and bizarre imagery of dreams.”
Ortiz is one of a handful of authors whose bibliographies serve as fascinating examples of how to filter the same life through different literary styles. The surreal dreamscapes of Bruja are far removed from the more straightforward realism of Excavation or the fragmented scenes in Hollywood Notebook, but the sum total of all three makes for a fascinating study in contrasts. Likewise, avid readers of Maggie Nelson’s work may note some thematic overlap within the lyrically written Bluets, the more analytical prose of The Art of Cruelty, and the autobiographical poems found in Something Bright, Then Holes.
Deborah Levy’s works of nonfiction, the books Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, take on a similar refraction of memory through surreal structural choices and a sense of intentional dislocation. Much of the former involves Levy’s childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. And while the structure of it is clearly that of a mature writer regarding their younger years, Levy leaves certain gaps in the narrative, neatly evoking the gaps in knowledge that one can have as a child. Those breaks are evocative for their absences; they evoke the frustrations of youth with a memorable deliberation.
The subtitle of Things I Don’t Want to Know is On Writing, while The Cost of Living’s is A Working Autobiography. Both books delve in and out of Levy’s own fiction, including her novel Swimming Home, showing how elements of her own life are transformed into the stuff of fiction, and how the lines between the two can grow blurry. The Cost of Living offers more of a portrait of the mature Levy than its predecessor did, but it also makes use of some precise disorientation—in this case, temporal. It begins with endings—the end of a marriage, the decision to sell a home—but leaps around in time, accruing certain motifs as it goes: questions of intimacy, family, and mortality in particular.
The Cost of Living opens with a nod to another artist who understood narrative misdirection. “As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story.” That sense of potential—and that question of endings, happy and otherwise—hangs over the rest of the book, reminding us throughout that, though nominally realistic, this is as constructed a narrative as any foray into history or the fantastical. Like Javier Mariás’s Dark Back of Time, this is a work that utilizes metafictional concerns for nonfictional ends. And given that this is a narrative that focuses on the end of a life and the end of a marriage, that question of where certain stories end takes on a powerful thematic heft.
The means by which certain authors utilize surreal or otherwise experimental narrative elements in their memoirs can turn certain familiar narratives into something unpredictable. But more than that, they also create a way for the authorial voice to be magnified, and for certain distinctive motifs to emerge. The surreal can be a valuable tool for some writers, and it can help take the memoir into new territory along the way.