April 2010

Dustin Luke Nelson

nonfiction

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir by Ander Monson

Vanishing Point falls somewhere in between a collection of essays and a memoir. Throughout the book Ander Monson repeatedly refers to it as memoir, yet rejects the label and its implications at the same time (thus the book’s subtitle: Not a Memoir). In essays like “Voir Dire” Monson flirts with memoir as he relates his experience on a jury, finding a man guilty of a crime, to the experience of his mother dying and other uniquely personal reflections while other essays inhabit a murkier definition of nonfiction. In the three pieces titled “Assembloir” (“Assembloir: Disclaimer,” “Assembloir: On Significance,” and “Assembloir: Ending Meditation”) Monson presents a pastiche of excerpts from other writers' memoirs. Because of the over-abundance of memoirs (what Monson might call an over-projection of the I), a lot of these memoirs (these I’s) start to look an awful lot alike. Unaware of their different origins the paragraphs meld together with vague terminology and the constant promise of redemption to come that doesn’t ring true with reality and the ways that life stories don’t end so tidily. Sure, this is nonfiction. It’s not un-true or un-real, and the source texts fall under the vast canopy of nonfiction; and they are memoir -- it’s just not Monson’s memoir in these essays.

At this point it probably goes without saying that Vanishing Point does not fit into a tidy box, nor does it belong in the realm of memoirs that permeate Amazon and the front tables at Barnes & Noble. Monson’s prose is refreshing. The language and the approach, its form and philosophical bent all side-step the vast tar pits of memoiring. Monson’s “Assembloirs” almost read like a blog post in the sense that many writers could almost be referred to as “assemblers.” Or maybe these are more reminiscent of our obsession with lists, of finding a way to condense vast amounts of information into something digestible.

Vanishing Point invites the reader to actively participate, literally, through its formal ingenuity. With Monson’s penchant for formal play, readers must decide how to approach each form individually. Essays contain marginalia, footnotes, daggers (the punctuation mark, not the weapon) that lead to short diatribes at his website, essays that go through the margins -- all of these formal choices make the reader interact with this text in ways that most books don’t consider. The book is fixed and unchanging, but Vanishing Point finds a way to make the experience no longer as fixed as the object of the book.

Everything, ultimately, leads back to the I. The memoir is an exploration of the individual and the collective I. A successful memoir (read: popular) often tells the author that their story (read: their life) was worth reading (read: worth living). Memoirs, as an emblem of the collective I, come to represent something boring and reductive for many readers. We look for reflections of our own I amidst the authorial redemption; we’re looking for a reflection of our own redemption to come (those of us not looking for this cry foul, and didn’t really care that James Frey lied). But Monson doesn’t see this as a bad thing, necessarily. It at least does not mean that the memoir, and what it says about the collective I, is devoid of meaning. In “Well That’s One Thing We Got” Monson watches a collegiate a cappella group’s YouTube video and recollects his own time in a choir as well as looking at the ways this contributes to the culture of I.

YouTube provides a unique platform, Monson muses, where anyone can potentially be a star, with or without talent. Even beyond that anyone can comment, making every I seem important. He uses the culture of memoir as a mirror, layering his own experiences within observations of the I in culture, vacillating between memoir and cultural criticism.

Vanishing Point is truly and fantastic and fascinating book by one of the most original voices in America. Monson challenges the reader, literally and formally, to find themselves within an object that is fixed and unchanging -- to, ultimately, decide what is important and what can be set aside for the time being, all in the service of better defining I.

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir by Ander Monson
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975542
208 Pages

Dustin Luke Nelson is a founding editor of InDigest Magazine and a writer living in Queens. His writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Guernica, Intentionally Urban, Film Forward, and elsewhere. He lives in the digital here: dustinlukenelson.com.