Henry Miller noted that there are two kinds of writers: those who write the Truth and those who don’t; simple as that. Memoir is tricky, though. A factually accurate spilling of the guts has very little to do with the kind of artistic truth to which Miller — himself a depressed autobiographical writer — was referring. But two new books on depression by two vastly different writers prove that the memoir, despite its increasingly shaky reputation in this decade, may yet be our most malleable and dynamic form.
Jeffery Smith’s “Where the Roots Reach for Water” is part autobiography of depression and part cultural investigation into what, exactly, depression is. Smith pondered drowning himself in a Montana river when his cocktail of medications sent him spiraling even further out of control than the depression they were meant to treat had; after that event, he embarked on an intellectual journey in search of the true face of melancholia (his word for depression). The result is, like Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a compendium of one writer’s reading and thinking on the subject — essentially, a highly aestheticized commonplace book. What makes it singular is the intellectual and moral seriousness with which he thinks and writes about his illness while in the grip of it. And his control of structure and pacing is splendid.
The book is a searing account of his own depression. When Smith writes of stealing petty cash from the office where he has a job as a clinical social worker and not remembering it, then being asked to leave, you almost feel the effects of his illness — you are in the trap with him, humiliated. Intellectually, his investigation ranges from ancient theory, myth and astrology to Eastern philosophy, the literature of Appalachia, Christianity and contemporary psychology and biology. His ultimate point is that melancholia is and always has been an integral part of the complete self, and the notion of a pill to stanch the symptoms is ludicrous. The book is really two books, a personal history and a natural one, but ultimately it is a powerful, finely honed investigation into what, exactly, the self and sadness have meant and continue to mean over time and across cultural boundaries.
John Bentley Mays’ “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs” takes an entirely different tack. Mays states early on: “There are a great many books about depression. This is not one of them. It is pain written, not observed; a depressive writer’s writing, a testament transcribed from wounded flesh to paper.”
The author is the art and culture critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and this book began as an essay for the Canadian magazine Saturday Night. It is, in a sense, a testament transcribed. Where Smith investigates the nature of depression writ large and tries to make sense of himself within the myriad definitions, Mays unwinds the memories of his life (his defeats and losses and humiliations), rescuing scenes and events from oblivion and reimagining the crucial moments. Growing up in the American South, he lost his alcoholic father (who may have been murdered) when he was 7. His mother died of lung cancer when he was 11. He was already thinking about suicide when he went to live with his father’s parents. In 1968, as a graduate student in English, he made his first suicide attempt.
Mays writes eloquently of his ongoing struggle, of the ever-present pull of death, of his family, of literature, of his Christianity. However, the book is less a literary memoir (that is, a nonfiction narrative that is dependent on the formal devices of fiction) than Mays’ memoirs, by which I mean the kind of birth-to-now record of one’s life usually reserved for celebrated public figures. What raises “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs” to the level of art is its language, which at its best has an elliptical lyricism reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” (though at its worst it plummets toward narcissistic bathos). All in all this is a moving, uncomfortable record of a joyless life in which every moment has been one to endure.
At this point, memoir presents the seemingly endless possibilities that the novel did at the end of the last century. What the form needs now is writers willing to take risks — which Smith and Mays surely do.