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The Universally Particular: An Essay Review of Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel

By Marcos Gonsalez.

Alexander Chee, How to Write and Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)

The praise on the back cover of the book says it all. “What passes for real,” Eula Biss writes, “becomes real, just as life becomes art, and art, pursued this fully, becomes life.” Candidly, Ocean Vuong notes, “This book makes me feel possible.” These writers say so much, and say it so well, so what’s left to say that hasn’t been said of Alexander Chee’s stunning essay collection, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel?

These words I am writing are in praise. These words I am writing are in review. These words are none of that and more than that. They are a writing with Alexander Chee, a writing with the thoughts and feelings this book invites. A writing with this book which is one that, for me, allows for the expression of the universal through the particular.

The opening essay, “The Curse,” is a testament to this thesis of mine. Chee’s mixed race and queer body from the United States is on an exchange program in Mexico. There, amongst his new elite Mexican family, he feels the possibility of a new identity: “Alejandro from Tijuana.” He composes this new self much like one does when composing a novel, inventing a backstory of being from Tijuana, and assures himself he is real and happy. Speaking Spanish fluently, he moves through the social circles of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, becoming one of their own. This crafted identity becomes a means of fighting off the one imposed upon him back in the United States. In this reimagining of self, Chee writes:

He didn’t spend his days waiting to be caught out for not being whoever someone else thought he was, though that was sincerely the condition of the bet; it had nothing like the stakes of the life I lived in back in the States. In Maine, my background—half white, half Korean—was constantly made to seem alien, or exotic, or somehow inhuman. In Mexico, I was only mestizo, ordinary at first glance. When people looked at me, they saw me, and they didn’t stare at me as if at an object, the way my fellow American classmates did, all of whom were white and from the same small town in Maine.

The essay is a coming of age story, really, but one that does not lay claim to the universality of childhood into adulthood, as if that is a universally experienced transition anyway. Chee in Mexico, with his very real background, accompanied by the fictionalized one, is the confrontation with specificity—how being in different countries as a certain kind of person means specific kinds of things. Chee is an American in Mexico, yes, but not how we see it on TV or in books or on Instagram, not that kind of American. An American like Chee where, as the final line of the essay devastatingly tells it, “America now the exile of me.”

It is a crisis as old as time, or one as old as the United States: Who counts as American? How do we understand ourselves as American? These are questions Chee probes in many of the essays, essays like “Girl” or “On Becoming an American Writer.” Chee’s answer, if an answer is to be found, is there is no authentically American experience. Being American is all a matter of perspective, of the kind of body moved in, the way in which you experience being in this country, and beyond this country.

As the fat, gay son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and poor Puerto Rican mother who grew up in an all-white town in New Jersey, I have never felt fully American. Never American, at all, really. I can relate to the experiences Chee presents in his essays. Not relate as in relate to his identity, but relate through the particularity of experience. In my life, so particular, so unlike so many other stories of gay people, or Puerto Rican or Mexican people, or fat or poor people, or American people, I have always struggled with constructing a stable identity, a coherent sense of self. For decades of my life, I tried to fight particularity. I wanted to be like the other white boys and girls in school. I wanted to not have my odd Puerto Rican and Mexican family arrangement, I wanted to be thin and blonde and straight, I wanted to not speak Spanish and to not have to live in the part of town the other kids called, “the Mexican ghetto.” I wanted universality and I knew as a kid, though always unstated and unmarked, that being universal meant whiteness.

Chee circles through this idea of the power of the particular in the universal. This point becomes most clear in his essays on writing novels, and especially in the essay, “The Autobiography of My Novel.” The reader gets such maxims as, “Stories about the most difficult things need to provide catharsis, or the reader will stop reading, or go mad.” I don’t agree with this need for catharsis in writing. Writing should be able to produce all kinds of responses— release or frustration, pleasure or pain, or what have you. I also don’t like being told how to write or what counts as good writing, but that is not what Chee is doing here. This declarative statement is offset later in the essay when he says, “Each of these lessons meant something specific to me as I constructed the novel, and were not necessarily useful to anyone else.” The declarative is a declarative for Alexander Chee alone. This is how he does it, how he needs to do it in order to make sense of the world. It his writing practice, specifically for him and by him. Not for you, reader, and not for me, but now we can think about how we might do it, about what might work for us. Chee honors this particularity of experience throughout the essay collection.

These essays reflect the writer in the process of writing. They are essays on process though they don’t present themselves that way, abstaining from suggested universalities. “100 Things About Writing a Novel”, rather than offering directions or instructions, is a mélange of metaphoric morsels, ways of approaching the writing process. “The Rosary,” an essay on the cultivation of roses—a process, a series of choices and forgettings and letting-gos—shows us we are all, like the rose garden, “a mess, a disaster in need of reckoning.” These essays are so generous, so giving, because they invite us in. Not as an invitation to relate to the text, to see ourselves in it, a way of relating to literature which so frequently places those whose experience is at odds with the accepted universal, like the queer person of color from a diasporic community, in an awkward place. How can the half white and half Korean gay man from Maine speak for anyone? How can the Mexican and Puerto Rican gay man from New Jersey represent anybody? Chee’s essays give us another framework, a way of reading which allows us to contemplate our own specificity, our specificity in relation to others, to see how our own fictions of life rub against those of others. It is in the particular, through our beautiful specificity, Chee suggests, where literature becomes transformational.

This is a personal essay disguised as a review. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a novel disguised as an essay collection. These words are all a work of fiction, a critical imagining. Just a mask on top of another mask, as all literature is the exceeding of form, a manipulation of the general in order to give the particular. There is no fiction, there is no nonfiction. There is no one way to write, there is no universal experience. There is but art, Chee teaches us, art produced by the body which creates it, and the processes and experiences of that body which brings art into the world.

Writing of his teacher Annie Dillard in the essay, “The Writing Life,” Chee notes how when passing her house he feels, “like a pulse through the air, the idea of her there.” We get a similar feeling of the idea of others, of the imaginings of them, in the essay “Mr. and Mrs. B,” where William F. Buckley swims “in that pool in Connecticut with the young male staffer, swimming underwater, the walls glowing with light, their naked bodies incandescent.” And in “After Peter,” about a former partner who died of AIDS, a short biography of facts and of imaginings and of undying longing, where minor characters must play the role of the major ones because the others are gone, because all “the men I wanted to follow into the future are dead.” Or with Chee’s late father who appears time and time again throughout the collection, returning as a haunting, a reckoning, a loving, an idea of what his loss means in the world.

I am twelve years old when my brother passes away. He is, like Dillard, and the Buckleys, and Peter, and Chee’s father, an idea to me. He is what was, and what will never be. He is my particular fiction, this fiction of a man I knew for so short a time, a man whose life and death shapes me immeasurably. He is in the process of all my writing. In how I emphasize my syllables, how I select my words, how I form my sentences, how I arrange my paragraphs, how I compose my essays. The breath of life to my being a writer, my being who I am on the page.

And maybe that’s what all of this is about. Writing as the imagining of those people we do and do not know, of what was and what can never be. People we care about even though time and distance and death leave its mark. People in their houses writing and on the streets protesting and in their swimming pools swimming, alive and living in our fictions. This is the work of literature as Chee gives it to us: rendering people, the world, and ourselves as reflected in our particular ideas and experiences.

Marcos Gonsalez is an essayist and PHD candidate in Literature living in NYC. His essay collection about growing up a gay son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and poor Puerto Rican mother in white America is currently on submission with publishers. His essays can be found or are forthcoming at Electric Literature, Catapult, The New Inquiry, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, among others. Online he can be found at @MarcosSGonsalez.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 26th, 2018.