Translating memories into prose can be a difficult task for many a writer. Memories are unreliable; just because certain events played out a certain way in our minds doesn’t necessarily mean that they did so in real life.
Lately, a number of nonfiction writers have decided that this is, as the saying goes, a feature rather than a bug. Books such as Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies” incorporate the vagaries and contradictions of memory into a larger narrative, pushing at the boundaries of what a memoir can be. That the subtitle of Alex Lemon’s “Feverland” is “A Memoir in Shards” indicates that this is another work that uses an unconventional structure to tell the story of its author’s life. And that’s exactly what Lemon does here, to powerful effect.
The questions and recurring themes in “Feverland” are familiar and resonant: the long-term effects of childhood abuse, the anxieties one feels as a new parent and the ways in which a serious medical condition can continue to affect a life long after it’s been successfully treated.
Each of these on its own might be a compelling subject for a book; in Lemon’s telling, he intercuts them, jumping forward and backward in time, and surveying his life from various angles through shorter vignettes. The cumulative effect of these, each of which stands well as a self-contained unit, gives the reader a powerful sense of Lemon — how he sees himself and how he appears to others. He’s also fond of strange digressions, including an unexpectedly positive dive into the minutiae of cockroaches’ lives.
This kaleidoscopic approach largely makes for a powerful reading experience — although a few of the shorter pieces deal with themes that call out for more thorough analysis. In “My Misogyny,” for instance, Lemon recounts an earlier period of his life in which he treated romantic partners badly and drank to excess, and examines how his being abused as a child may have been at the root of this behavior.
Overall, however, Lemon’s stylistic risks pay off. While its structure could accurately be described as “experimental,” that doesn’t come at the expense of its readability — there’s a valid reason why this book is organized this way, and as the fragments begin to coalesce into something all-encompassing, the effect is thoroughly rewarding. Lemon’s memoir is moving, unpredictable and sometimes digressive — in that, too, it’s a lot like life itself.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
By: Alex Lemon.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 288 pages, $16.
Event: Oct. 14, Twin Cities Book Festival, State Fairgrounds.