Half a Life

I was privileged to attend a reading/discussion last night with Dani Shapiro and Darin Strauss, talking about the art of memoir.  I had just finished Darin’s fantastic memoir, Half A Life, and we all know I’d walk to the ends of the earth for Dani.  The event was fabulous – my super-incredible writer friend who came with me even said it was probably the best writer’s event like this she’d ever been to.

Dani reviewed Darin’s book for the New York Times, which she’d mentioned to me, so I was predisposed to like it.  But.  Wow. The book took my breath away.   It is a spare, short, searing meditation on how what it means to live a life.  Darin, at the age of 18, was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of a girl he went to school with.  Cleared of all guilt by the court systems, he spent the next 18 years trying to bury the accident, to get “over it.”  Finally, after writing three successful novels, he said last night, he realized this experience was getting in the way of his fiction.  He decided to write about it, initially just for himself, and it turned into this book.

Go, now, and buy this book.  You will read it in a day, turning the pages hypnotically, as I did.  I think the brilliance of Darin’s book is his ability to generalize from a very specific and tragic occurence to a much more universal human question: how do we live with what happens to us, and with what we do?  How do we incorporate the small and big moments, those anticipated and not, into the fabric of who we are?

It was a larger and more complete moment than simply the words that were like whitecaps on the surface of it.  All moments are like that.  But the rare thing is to have a clear sense of this depth, and to know another person is sensing it, too.

Darin writes gorgeously about the moments that define our lives, both in the living of them and in the ways that they reverberate, both forward and back.  Dani referred, last night, to samskaras, which is one of the most powerful motifs of her book for me, and one that I had in mind a lot while reading Half a Life. Samskaras are the moments, people, places, and losses of our lives that harden into little knots around which the river of our consciousness learns to flow … these little hardened rocks alter forever the path of our lives, perhaps imperceptibly, perhaps not.  Over time, as we know, a slight arc in a stream of water cuts into the bedrock beneath it, and we are changed irrevocably.

Half a Life explores this question: how do the things that happen to us shape our lives?  What arcs and shapes does chance, and luck, and happenstance carve into who we are?  We can’t know these things as we live them, and their ramifications play out over years, unfolding like a slow motion Jacob’s Ladder.  But the path that they trace is, in retrospect, understandable.  And there is power in this kind of mapping.

Darin speaks in his book about something he touched on last night as well: the performative aspects of grief.  I think this can also be extrapolated into the performative aspects of reality and life itself.  He says “I kept waiting to become more who I thought I should be,” with specific reference to the grieving boy in this story, but can’t we extend that sentiment to all of us?  I often have the sense that I am watching myself go through my own life, inhabiting a series of masks that are predefined and predetermined; the act of this is soul-draining, and Darin excavates what this feels like beautifully.

Ultimately, Half a Life isn’t about getting over tragedy, about closure, or about moving on.  It’s about acceptance, forgiveness, and humanity.  It’s about owning our own childhoods, our own trajectories, replete as they are with love, hurt, mistakes, and grace.  It is about learning to walk our own paths, and incorporating what happens to us as well as what we do to others along the way.  This book is about nothing less than what it means to live in this world, and I can’t articulate how it moved me.

It is fitting that some of Darin’s last lines refer to T.S. Eliot, the poet whose words so many readers have sent to me.  This is what Half a Life is about.  And I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Go, go, go, go now.  Read it.

Things don’t go away.  They become you.  There is no end, as T.S. Eliot says, but addition: the trailing consequence of further days and hours.  No freedom from the past, or from the future.

9 thoughts on “Half a Life”

  1. I want to run out and buy this! Successful memoir must make the personal universal: it sounds like this book has done just that. In other news, I’m jealous that you got to go to such a cool event!

  2. Okay, adding it to my (teetering) pile. I read Dani’s review in the Times and was capitvated (and haunted) but now I’m fully convinced. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Yup, you convinced me. I’m a sucker for a good meditation on HOW TO LIVE A LIFE… methinks I need all the help I can get, you know? And oh how I love to read the stories of other people’s lives.

  4. I love that you pulled out the quote about words being the whitecaps on moments. That one really stuck with me, as did so many other of his beautifully crafted metaphors. You captured the book and the evening perfectly!

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