Blake Bailey wrote his memoir in stops and starts over the course of eleven years and the final product is a tight 240 pages, you can read it in a day, and while it’s definitely a conventional memoir insofar as it carries our narrator from womb to chapel and a little bit farther, teaching him lessons along the way, the most striking portrait to come from it is that of the Biographer’s brother, Scott, a drug addict and occasional religious zealot who’s also very clever and charming and gentle (most of the time); his charms are elusive but strong; and though the book is quick read and technically very “easy” (meaning that the prose is clean and the vibe is that of a happy hour anecdote rather than a clinical confession) the book itself is super complex, at the same time, by merit of its emotional and—forgive me—metatextual layers. Also the fact that our narrator is way more elusive than he seems. He has a way of saying things without speaking.
Here’s the groundwork of the “meta” thing:
This memoir is a firsthand account written by an experienced biographer; as a biographer, this author’s job is to be skeptical about firsthand accounts, to question and dissect them, to pull a buncha flawed accounts together and cross-reference them with documents to find the truth; as such, there’s a quality to Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned, that isn’t just the natural subjectivity of a narrator—conjuring dialogue with confidence, among other liberties—but there’s a feeling, too, of the Biographer surrendering to subjectivity. Sorta steeling his jaw as he tells the story and resists the temptation to analyze, contextualize, to explain.
A scene of drama at the dinner table will conclude with Blake and his dad trading a wordless glance (I’m gonna toggle, by the way, between the first name for the character and last name for the author).
And that’s it. End of scene.
The book is more novelistic than the biographies, is what I mean; it’s moodier. The narrator here doesn’t cross-reference the dramatic dinner scene with similar moments from the subjects’ past or future in order to explain some aspect of their character, like he does when recounting a dramatic dinner scene in his biographies of Richard Yates or John Cheever (such scenes, incidentally, abound). For all of the diagnosing and interpreting that our narrator has done with the lives of his biographical subjects, one has to imagine he’s written (at least in his head) an endless Talmudic ream of interpretations for the episodes of his own life. I’m imaging a cave fulla scrolls.
But that navel-gazing explication of a diarist is kept at bay here. It isn’t minimalism, it’s just plain old restraint.
But there’s a strategy at work in that restraint—wherein sits our trouble.
I forget which radio interview it is where Bailey says that, although his biographies move forward chronologically through his subjects’ lives, he’s less concerned with presenting that streamlined womb-to-tomb narrative than he is with painting a picture of the subject thematically.
So for example: let’s say he’s writing about novelist Charles Jackson getting sober in the mid-1930s–the Biographer will jump ahead to tell us how, years later, Jackson would look back and wonder why The Lost Weekend, his first novel (still unwritten) was the only book anyone talked about, and would realize that it was the only one he wrote while sober. He communicates the significance of a moment by bringing in details that don’t necessarily belong to that moment.
And that’s a factor here.
The whole memoir seems to me like a portrait not of the author but of Scott, his brother; it’s painted, though, by episodes in Blake’s life. Indeed the book’s final line—which is the emotional equivalent of a karate chop to the throat—brings us, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, from Scott’s lowkey funeral (the end of his life) back to their boyhood bedroom (the beginning), and a conversation they had as children—it’s reminiscent of Picasso drawing a dog on a cocktail napkin in a single line, looping and swooping all over and then closing the circle, manifesting the image.
One of the impressions I get from the memoir’s brevity—although I might be projecting this, for reasons that’ll become clear—is that a big part of the reason this book is so lean, every scene so chiseled to its essentials, is because the author has spent a decade writing way-longer drafts of each episode, drafts in which he explained things, justified and interpreted things, expressed his doubts and questions; and I suspect that, as those more fretful passages fell away, the vocabulary of what remained became more precise, more emotionally loaded so’s to accommodate things unsaid. The doubt and angst are thus present, without being articulated.
It isn’t the wordless wafting ennui of an Antonioni movie, thank God, and it isn’t quite the sad concision of Raymond Carver.
But it’s something like those.
Leonard Cohen comes to mind here (he normally does).
Looks like freedom, he says in “Closing Time,” but it feels like death.
It’s something in between, I guess.
The Brevity is Basically a Character, it Says so Much
By the way, I wanna reiterate our premise in the Bailey Binge: I’m reading Bailey’s work with the idea that all of his books are narrated by the same Biographer character, and that this character changes a little from book to book; that the biographies are, in that respect, sequels to each other, and within that framework I’m suggesting that, in The Splendid Things We Planned, our narrator is definitely that same scrupulous suit-and-tie narrator from Cheever, and A Tragic Honesty, except in this book he isn’t enthusing from a lectern, simultaneously telling and analyzing a story; it sounds, rather, like he’s telling this from a bar, martini in hand and necktie loosened, stepping away to put Elvis on the jukebox and shuffling back to start conversation with “So!”
The Biographer’s chatty and personable here but there’s still a cordiality, a subtle professionalism, that manifests in the book’s brevity—which I think has as much to do with pursuing the soul of wit as it does with a kind of authorial shyness or humility.
“Let me not take up much of your time.”
So part of the reason I say that the book isn’t an easy read (if you’re the kinda reader who likes to complicate things) is because what I think it reveals of the Biographer is that even while talking about himself, he isn’t one for talking about himself. But he does want to connect with the reader personally. Hence, I think, the occasional and always-helpful use of the first person vice in his biographies (albeit footnoted: small font at the bottom of the page).
Sometimes his silence on things is as punishing as God’s own like for instance in a quick and jarring scene where Blake and Scott are hanging out, they’re young adults and kinda drunk, and shortly after Blake dozes off on the sofa he wakes up with his brother’s tongue in his mouth. Not quite knowing how to handle it, Scott makes like it’s no big deal, asks what time it is, and leaves.
End of scene.
Meanwhile you’re maybe reading this at a Miami coffee shop with your brow in a new shape, attracting glances, wanting an explanation (was this an incestuous thing, a power move, an attempt on Scott’s end to be shocking, a vacant manic gesture…?).
But the Biographer leaves it alone. The questions I’m asking have obviously occurred to him too and, no doubt, he could probably give us an eloquent few pages about the kiss’s many dimensions, about how he felt, what he thinks.
But my theory is that the whole point of the book is to present Scott without explaining him.
Cuz what’s the effect of creating a character on the page who’s defined solely by his actions, and not framed within or explained by the author’s analyses?
It means that the character can only be judged by his actions—actions that, in this case, are not of the author’s making and by which the author is himself confounded. It means that Scott is propelled here, as in life, by a mysterious and unknowable internality.
Normally we’d call this an act of creation but here it’s more like resurrection.
Questioning the motives for resurrection—is it guilt or grief or amusement or a means for self-exploration on the Biographer’s end…?—is the fruit that exists between the lines, ensnared in this memoir’s brevity.
Which is what I think makes the book so elusive.
That kiss, incidentally, does come up later, when their step mom reveals that Scott did the same thing to her. It becomes part of the catalyst for the family’s decision to finally estrange themselves from Scott.
About which I’ve got some baggage.
My brother is smart and fun and compassionate, three years older than me, but he also routinely does things so jarringly selfish and ridiculous that I end up sabotaging my own testimony of the offenses by saddling them with the exact sort of agitated commentary that I’m imaging the Biographer spent a decade purging from his manuscript. I didn’t speak to my brother for three months after Christmas 2019 when he left me stranded at midnight on the porch of a strange empty house without a ride home. He’s a Trump supporter and last year on my dad’s birthday, rather than asking after the wellness of my two closest friends when I brought them up, he asked instead if they were “libtard pussy bitches.” When we had dinner with my mom on the eve of her spinal surgery he ranted about Antifa destroying our country and then left early. He abandoned family obligations this Christmas saying not just that he wasn’t feeling well, which would have sufficed, but that he ate an undercooked cookie that made him sick. Then he chased it with a glass of milk, which turned out to be expired. Then he projectile vomited while driving his car. Then he spun out on the highway while projectile vomiting and nearly died.
All on his way to the party.
The party in question was just dinner with my dad and me, but my point is that the lie as so extravagant I got insulted.
But otherwise he’s great! Really! Everybody loves him, he’s the life of every party, particularly great with kids, possessed too of some weird magnetism that draws all dogs desperately to his ankles. And we get along really well most of the time and enjoy almost the exact sort of rapport seen here, in Splendid Things, between Blake and Scott—especially in a scene where, as the black sheep at a family vacation, they opt out of trying to be affable and alluring to their step-siblings and instead get drunk at the hotel bar and entertain each other.
Except literally no one on Earth makes me angrier than my brother. Nobody makes me laugh as hard either.
The friction creates fire.
And it’s worse now than ever before because, I shit you not, every political, meteorological, or culinary disappointment in his life is suddenly, in his estimation, the work of a deep state Clinton conspiracy, her and Obama robed and chanting in a cave with Marx’s head in a jar.
And he has to bring it up.
Everybody tells me to be the bigger person, to let it go, that he’s got his ideas and I’ve got mine—but my anger at his insults and behavior (abandoning me somewhere or breaking a promise or calling Nancy Pelosi a “stupid cunt” over an otherwise nice quiet dinner with our nervous mom on the eve of surgery) pervades my life; the indignation haunts me for days; I rant about it to everyone. The question, then, becomes whether I allow that venom into my daily life simply because he’s chosen to make it a staple of his company. And the answer’s finally no. Relatives implore me by saying, “Well just don’t mention politics,” but my brother won’t allow a conversation about dogs or traffic or weather to go by without reverting almost convulsively to some psychotically vulgar remark about Hilary Clinton or Antifa.
The climax of Bailey’s memoir is a way-more-dramatic example of reaching that same fever pitch and addressing the question of whether to sustain the ties with a loved one who insists on being cruel.
Scott, in the book, starts getting wasted and beating their mom.
He totals a car and gets removed from the house by cops.
Blake and his mom buy a gun and wait for his inevitable return.
That’s obviously not my situation. My brother isn’t hurting anyone, he isn’t a threat.
The gist of the quandary, though, is kinda painfully familiar.
My brother and I haven’t spoken since Christmas eve (when he ate the dog that at the frog that ate the fly) and coincidentally it was today, while preparing this final draft, that he sent me an innocuous text about a TV show he likes.
For better or worse, I said hey.
The Biographer’s Necktie
Back to Bailey.
I’m interested in Robert Caro, the biographer of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses. Caro’s been working on the Johnson bio for over forty years and now, in his mid-eighties, is several hundred pages into the fifth and final volume.
One of the things I notice in Robert Caro is that he wears a suit and tie for his interviews. I recently saw a photo of Caro in a sweater and didn’t know it was him til I saw the caption. Watch his interviews and you’ll see a nervous tick in his blinking (I have something similar—though my whole neck seizes and my eyes shut tight and I bare my teeth; I’ve been told it looks like I’m very suddenly cumming).
There are at least two interviews where Caro gets choked up and changes the subject from something painful.
In discussing The Art of Nonfiction with The Paris Review, he gives interviewers the third degree when they show up late to his office, delaying his work. (Leonard Cohen did the same thing with The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief David Remnick a couple years ago, when Remnick showed up late for the deathbed interview. If you’d ask me who in existence has the authority to raise their voice at David Remnick I’d have guessed probably just his wife and the moon. But there goes Leonard…)
In his biographies, when Caro feels the need to tell us about his rapport with an interview subject, he doesn’t use the first person, as Baily will. He says instead something like, “When John Doe expressed his reluctance to the author of this volume…”
One biographer is by no means a model for all, of course, but it makes sense that, to be a great one, you have to be tremendously and perhaps in some ways almost debilitatingly sensitive. The sort of open nerve we see (maybe it’s just me) in Caro, wearing his suit as armor and standing forever on nervous, smiling, grateful humble ceremony. He never accepts an accolade without mentioning a person to whom he’s indebted.
I mentioned in the last post that in his second book, about John Cheever, Bailey the Biographer-character stays remarkably objective in his recounting of the old man’s worse and better moments—but there are little remarks here and there (I cite what I consider a poignant one) where he reveals what seems to me a deep appreciation for (and perhaps kinship with) his subject. And for all that the narrator/Biographer sounds in this book, Splendid Things We Planned, like a chattier and totally inviting raconteur, telling a story of some heavy shit that’s basically pretty funny in retrospect, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that the book’s final page is like being chopped in the throat. It creates a kind of silence inside you that forbids jumping straight to something else. I recently made a big deal of the fact that Cheever was the first book to ever make me cry, back when I was twenty, but if this were the book I’d been reading instead of that one, it would have garnered the same distinction. And the economy of words with which the Biographer renders his judo on our carotid seems to me like how a shy, considerate, clever person communicates tremendous pain:
He delivers it subtly, over the course of a couple hundred pages, drop by drop in a Trojan horse of comedy—partly cuz he doesn’t want you to feel obliged to cry for him, and perhaps partly cuz he doesn’t wanna put himself entirely out there.
So yes his tie is loosened at the moment, and his martini’s nearing its bottom; but it’ll be espresso after this. Hey look at the time.
One imagines he’ll be happy about getting back to the office.