Reality Overload: When the Actual Fails the Memoirist

Years ago I would often visit a friend at a college on the western side of Michigan, less than an hour from Kalamazoo. That part of the state is home to clusters of mega-churches and, beyond that, nothing. Strip malls lace the areas around highway exits. Flat fields blanket either side of empty and straight black asphalt. The entrance gate to the college, unassuming but charming, said “Grand Valley State University.” Across the road was a church with a marquee: “An inquisitive mind is a costly vice.” The flat horizon stretched in every direction for miles.

One of the only serious books I can think of set in this wilderness, Bryan Charles’ first novel, Grab on to Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way, re-creates the loneliness of the physically and culturally desolate landscape such that if it disappeared off the face of the earth, we could use Mr. Charles’ book as a guide to rebuilding it. He wrote in the present tense, as if his subject had no past, but also no future. His new memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his move from Michigan to New York City to become a writer and the three years leading up to the day he started writing his novel.

Mr. Charles has moved on to the past tense. He writes in a frighteningly spare voice. Grab on to Me was about a teenager, recently graduated from high school, learning to shed his heavy-handed adolescent emotions. Like bad Morrissey lyrics, lines of such angst teem in the book: “Everyone I know is made of light” and “Why do I cling hopelessly to this ghost?” In the new work, the writing is unornamented, barren like the small town from which Mr. Charles escaped from. “The summer passed. It was very hot.” “I went to work and came home and tried to write.” Mr. Charles will often forgo description in favor of these kinds of sweeping transitions that allow him to avoid describing all the mundane details of daily life, but in their stark dreariness also exemplify the rhythm of day-by-day routine.

Such a direct voice makes everything seem dire, even when nothing happens. And for a lot of this book, nothing does. Mr. Charles wants to become a writer. He has sex with an ex-girlfriend. He takes a shit in a public restroom. He worries he is not a good writer of fiction. There is a fellow aspiring author who publishes with ease in The Paris Review and The Washington Post, obviously Wells Tower (“I’m writing a story about Vikings,” he says), cleverly renamed as Baines, as in “bane of my existence.” Mr. Charles cuts ties with him via email, overcome with jealousy.

And yet Mr. Charles’ narrative style, journalistic and declarative, gives every scene the weight of a reported event, as if each were a stepping stone to a gloomy but meaningful conclusion. The memoir is set between late 1998 and early 2002, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center loom from the first pages. They tell Mr. Charles, like the rest of the city, where he is, a symbol of permanence in a hostile environment. And yet they are, for Mr. Charles, a strange force, something to be conquered. In his early days in the city after arriving from Michigan, he remembers, “I went to the top of the Empire State building and looked out at the city. It was a clear day and I could see to the end of the island. This may have been the first time I saw the World Trade Center in person. I went there a few days later. I stood on the plaza between the two towers, tilted my head, and looked straight up. A feeling of vertigo came over me. I almost fell down.” His gaze is drawn magnetically to Lower Manhattan.

It is with an air of inevitability, then, that in his long attempt to become a writer, Mr. Charles lands a job as a marketing copywriter at Morgan Stanley on the 70th floor of the south tower. We know what happens next, but the way Mr. Charles tells it, in that same objective voice, it is like the World Trade Center existed and fell for the sake of Mr. Charles writing about it, another event in between taking a great shit at an Au Bon Pain and admiring a girl’s ass outside a J. Crew in the progression of his writing career. Far from solipsism, this is more of a survival technique, the kind of personal constancy one must demonstrate in the face of millions of strangers surrounding you at all hours of the day. The point is cemented by Mr. Charles’ epigram from Charles Bukowski’s “Relentless as the Tarantula”: “Something is working toward you right now, and I mean you and nobody but you.”

AS THE METAPHOR holding up Mr. Charles’ book literally collapses, he lands on one of the most understated representations of Sept.11, 2001, yet written: “Descent was slow. We’d gone about ten floors. The tower swayed. It felt like it was going to break in two and fall into the street. My mind switched off.” If Mr. Charles makes routine feel as grave as a falling building, he makes the falling building and its aftermath feel like routine. It is just another very bad, though in this case also very memorable, day. The towers are his touchstone–both his desire to write as a means of enduring New York City but also the dependable comfort that keeps him locked down to a desk and a day job. With this familiarity gone, though, the certainty of Mr. Charles writing his novel feels natural: He feels grateful to be alive. He suffers symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He swallows Xanax like tic tacs. He quits his job. He begins writing his book.

But for all the moments of subtle tragedy and purposeful language, in the end I wish Mr. Charles had written a work of fiction, especially because Mr. Charles’ memoir reveals how autobiographical his novel was. At times, he sacrifices good writing to be true to what happened. This is, ostensibly, life and not fiction. Unfortunately, life is not always interesting, and no voice, no matter how deliberate and assertive, can make certain moments significant. I cannot recall a bit of dialogue as contrived as this exchange between Mr. Charles and Baines as they discuss applying to M.F.A. programs, sounding more like a brochure than two people talking:

“What about Brooklyn College?” Baines asks. “You looked at them yet?

“Brooklyn College? No.”

“They have a later deadline, I think. Apparently they’re shoring things up over there. Michael Cunningham’s taking over the MFA program.”

“Michael Cunningham? Really?”

“Columbia wanted him. I’m not sure what happened. Anyway. Brooklyn College. Look into it.”

“I will.”

After Mr. Charles survives Sept. 11, he becomes a minor hero in his hometown in Michigan. His mother insists he do interviews with local news stations. Mr. Charles is reluctant and says to his mother, addressing the compulsion to write a true account rather than a fictional embellishment: “It’s not a fucking story. It’s my life.” Like certain long nights in between Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan, where you feel landlocked despite the ubiquitous presence of water, in the lull between the major events–be they a great shit or a burning building–true life can be lonely and boring and not worth writing about.

Reality Overload: When the Actual Fails the Memoirist