Thursday, June 25, 2015

THIS BOY'S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

Am I the only reader whose credulity is strained to the breaking point by Tobias Wolff's 'memoir'? I'm not saying that Ye Olde Toby Mug is a fabricator of James  ("Howdya like my prison tattoos?") Frey proportions; I'm merely politely suggesting that Wolff's book deserves to be subjected to a radically skeptical reading. This reading would simply treat the narrator as the kind of person he tells us he once was: a sometimes highly successful deceiver, a liar both big and good. This is essentially the same as saying we should read the book as the work of the person Tobias Wolff was when he wrote it: a professional writer of fiction, an imaginist, someone who might feel no qualms about harmlessly inventing a reality when the real thing is less than satisfactorily dramatic. In short, a bullshitter, just like Papa Hemingway and Big Daddy Dostoyevsky. Isn't Wolff's book, after all, exactly about this kind of invention, this self-invention, the extent to which our selves are fictions perpetually in the process of revision? (The answer is "Yes.") Such fluid selves, however, are in practical terms more often the exception than the rule. Most selves are ill-fitting, hand-me-down things guaranteed to bequeath their bearers a lifetime of neuroses--which the bearers will bear, because doing the Rilkean / Wolffian thing and rewriting your life is one of the hardest things anyone will ever do. Only the truly exceptional can hope to be, like the "I" of this book, the unreliable narrators of themselves.

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