Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, by Ander Monson

Warning, Will Robinson, warning, warning! Not summer reading!

If, instead of craving the typical plot-driven fare of summer, you're in the mood to mix up your summer reading a bit, try this unusual, thought provoking offering, "Vanishing point: Not a Memoir."

In this loose collection of essays, Monson's "point" is that memoir, as my favorite memoirist Lauren Slater says, is a slippery thing. What are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives? What lies beneath the narrative? And in the space between?

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives is something I've had on my mind lately. For instance, I've told myself, for over a decade now, that there was never a reason for an estranged family member to be upset with me. In the version of our family's story that I told myself, I cast myself as the wrongly scorned good guy. Only recently did it occur to me to shift the kaleidoscope of our family story and look at the narrative from other perspectives, allowing another scenario to enter into the realm of possibilities. Guess what? The story changed completely, and the roles I had assigned us flipped, kind of like a rewriting of the book of our family history. (This new perspective allowed me to take responsibility, apologize, and give the estranged family member an opening to resume contact -- which, happily, he did.)

"Vanishing Point" is not the story of Monson's life, at least not in the traditional sense of memoir. If the first two letters of the word are examined more closely, what is a "ME" moir? What is the story of me? Monson writes, "There's a reason why memoirs tend to be described in ... rapturous ... terms ... : We want to be reminded about ourselves, uplifted and edified through narratives that are really dreams of what we hope our lives could be like."

Monson adds layers of texture and meaning to his text by "decorating" it with glyphs of daggers and asterisks, which refer to the book's footnotes, either on the page or in the book's accompanying website.

My favorite chapter is an essay entitled, "Transtubstantiation," in which Monson riffs on junk food, commercialization, and the slippery meanings we assign to our "stuff." Here he extricates and explores layers of meaning inherent in the pop culture that informs our everyday lives, by detailing his love of Doritos and his exploration into "Doritos The Quest" marketing campaign, one in which consumers are challenged to guess a chip's mystery flavor.

"Vanishing Point" is a challenging book, one that would no doubt yield deeper meaning upon repeated readings. But when reading it, I felt similar to how I imagine my son feels when he eats his required teaspoonful of peas at dinner. He knows the peas are good for him (how many times have I told him that story?), but he is not about to prolong the experience -- he swallows them like pills. For me, reading "Vanishing Point" was thought provoking, but one time was enough -- at least for now.

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