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Immersed

"Nobody Passes," Make/shift, Spring/Summer 2013

In interviews about my first two novels, whenever someone asked about autobiographical elements in my work, I was fond of saying that the difference between fiction and autobiography is that autobiography is all lies, so that’s why I write fiction. But then, my latest book, The End of San Francisco, is a memoir; I’m defining it as nonfiction.

I get so frustrated by most memoirs because they take complicated, messy, inventive lives and make them neat, orderly, and contained. They mold the details of someone’s life story into a predictable product for the titillation of a passive audience. That’s one of the things I’m trying to resist in presenting a memoir that’s nonlinear, messy, maybe even contradictory. The book starts with visiting my father on his deathbed, and that chapter is the only one that’s more or less straightforward: I wrote it right in the moment, and everything felt clear and monumental in all of its complications. But after that experience, of course, came the overwhelm of the everyday, and the prose opens up and collapses in all directions along with it.

So why am I calling this book a memoir? I think it’s because in the book I obsess about the people and places and spaces in moments of loss and yearning and dreaming and spurning that have made and unmade me. But it’s an active process of remembering. That’s why the book is structured by emotion and association rather than by conventional plot structure. When I’m dead and in the ground, maybe someone can fly over in a helicopter and plot everything out from point A to point Z, but until then my brain will always be moving in all directions.

It felt crucial to me to maintain a spontaneous tone and a meandering structure, despite the fact that everything in the book is highly crafted. I want the reader to experience the process I went through: that’s part of the intimacy. The way that I circle around those formative moments, trying to reveal the complications: the past relationships, events, and impasses that I understand more clearly now; the impasses, events, and relationships that I understood more clearly in the past; the spaces between.

Already, months before publication, a few readers of the manuscript have commented that they felt lost in the gap between the clarity of the first chapter and the dissonance of the second. They don’t seem to understand that that’s the point. One reader even said she thought I needed to describe the experience of moving to San Francisco and finally finding everything I needed, and then show it all falling apart. But that never happened: it was always everything at once. That’s what I’m trying to convey. I’m not interested in making my life conform to a hackneyed narrative in order to make some readers more comfortable.

I first moved to San Francisco in 1992, when I was nineteen. I was searching for other queer freaks and outsiders and outcasts fleeing childhood and our parents and everything we were supposed to be. I was looking for activism and sex and freedom and vitality. San Francisco became my home because I needed it, because I wanted it; it was the dream that I was creating. And yet, at the same time, San Francisco has let me down more than anywhere else, over and over again in such brutal ways. The End of San Francisco is about the end of my hope for San Francisco as a refuge for queer visions outside of status quo normalcy. In a way the book is an exorcism—I’m trying to explore and explode all the mythologies that I’ve believed in, including my own.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve become so caught up in the promotional process: I’m more fixated than ever on my writing; I don’t know what else to rely on. And so I’ve become obsessed with plotting how to get reviewers to write about this book on my terms. My mind races around in a kind of promotional fever. But how do I preserve the vulnerability of the work, the formal experimentation as a direct part of critical engagement and emotional impact, in the face of marketing gloss?

Usually when I have a new book coming out, I offer the manuscript to everyone who plays a major role in it (even with novels), because I don’t want people to be surprised about what I say. I've never sent a manuscript to my mother before. This time she figures heavily in the beginning and ending, and we have more of a relationship than we’ve had in the past, so I do send it to her. Her reaction surprises me. She doesn’t comment much on the parts about her, except to say that they were difficult to read. But she does say that she felt like she was in a movie, that because of the way I write without the conventional boundaries of plot structure, the separation between what happens in the book and herself as a reader wasn’t there. She says she felt immersed in a way that doesn’t usually happen for her.

My mother’s unwillingness to acknowledge the sexual abuse I suffered as a child in her home, her contribution to the silence and violence, these are themes that frame the beginning and ending of the book: if my mother can nonetheless appreciate the writing on the terms I intend, then anyone can. Whether they will is a different question.

 

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