What Days Are For: A Memoir by Robert Dessaix
What makes a memoir worth reading? It might be the interest of the story told, our admiration for the author, or the beauty of the sentences. Critics of memoir tend to think it's our morbid fascination with the nitty-gritty awfulness of people's lives. Other readers might say it's the redemption at the end, where hardship is overcome and life lessons are learned. For me, it is something more nebulous: the quality of the voice. Part of what I mean by "voice" is whether I enjoy the narrator's company and want that person's voice in my head. This is not a question of the narrator being "likeable" or sympathetic, but whether he or she is entertaining and engaging, on an emotional level or an intellectual one or both. Jenny Diski's persona in Stranger on a Train is anything but "likeable" -- she tries her best not to be -- but it's a wonderful book because the voice is funny and brilliant and Diski's contrariness never gets old. The persona in Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage is someone we might avoid in real life, but in a book, his company is delightfully bracing. Robert Dessaix's new memoir What Days Are For is the kind of book that relies on voice. It lives or dies based on whether the reader wants to be in the narrator's presence. That Dessaix quotes from Out of Sheer Rage at length shows his interest in the kind of voice-driven nonfiction Dyer writes.
The premise of the book is simple: Dessaix suffers a heart attack and finds himself in the hospital, his recovery uncertain. This memoir is a record of his thoughts and experiences during his hospital stay. It's written in present tense, moving back and forth between the internal world of Dessaix's musings and the external world where visitors and nurses come and go. Dessaix's musings take readers far and wide. We follow his mind as he remembers his travels, as he contemplates childhood, and as he thinks about his play that is being rehearsed and performed while he is in the hospital. He ponders the nature of intimacy and our relationship with time. He thinks about Philip Larkin's poem "Days," which asks, "What are days for? / Days are where we live. / They come, they wake up / Time and time over. / They are to be happy in: / Where can we live but days?" The poem inspires some of Dessaix's most interesting thoughts and his best writing, for instance this passage on the film Dead Poets' Society:
However, not being an American teenager at the time, I realized almost straight away that days can't be seized. As Seneca said somewhere or other with his usual directness: why waste your time? Even though you seize it, it will flee. Precisely -- that's the whole point about time: it's a dimension, not a thing, so you can't seize bits of it, except in retrospect, where it lies about in pinches, lumps and little piles of shards. It's what you do with your days that matters.
His take on the "living in the moment" idea is similarly trenchant: "I can see why a goldfish might take to this idea, but it strikes me as a witless approach to passing time for humans." He writes well about the theater: "A play scoops you up into its moment in the dark, it strives to seduce you, it makes love to you, it wants something of you, it can't be itself without you." The book has many moments like this, where Dessaix's challenges to the usual clichéd thinking are funny and fresh.
The main organizational structure at work is the days spent in the hospital, each of which forms a chapter. Dessaix returns to certain themes, that of darshan especially, or being seen ("being beholden at the very instant you behold the beholder"), but mostly the book wanders, as one's mind would wander during a lengthy hospital stay. Some readers might find this wandering charming; they might enjoy following the narrator's mind as it leaps from memory to memory, idea to idea. But the book as a whole doesn't cohere and in that lack of coherence fails to offer a voice that impels the reader forward. The moments of insight are intriguing, but not enough. The problem isn't so much the loose structure of the chapters as it is that Dessaix's narrative voice isn't fully developed. Successful narrators will make clear to the reader that it's worthwhile to listen to their thoughts and to pay attention to their stories. It's a matter of building trust that the narrator is someone we really do want to spend time with. In this book, it's not always clear why Dessaix begins to tell a new story, why we are being whisked off to Russia or India or Kuala Lumpur. The various anecdotes and musings are too unconnected and diffuse. The book begins with a sense of propulsion forward: we want to know what will happen to Dessaix at the hospital. From there, it seems at first as though the ideas about life and death and identity and relationships will provide enough tension to keep the book moving. But instead, there is too much puttering about and too little motivation to keep going.
These problems appear on the sentence level with too many paragraphs that begin with "anyway," as in "Anyway, who wants to save the world these days? The world is a lost cause." This last sentence is evidence of another problem: too many sweeping generalizations. Admittedly, these generalizations are part of his agenda of looking back at his life and taking stock of the world he has experienced. But with a persona that fails to win over the reader, the generalizations seem less wise or even eccentric than cranky: "All that talk, all that tweeting and hooking up and liking on Facebook, but... no intimacy. Chat tweet chat tweet chat chat chat -- we can't shut up, we natter away and message each other in broken English ceaselessly, but intimacy escapes us." Perhaps this is true, and Dessaix does have intriguing things to say elsewhere about intimacy, but this claim is not original or especially interesting. Similarly, Dessaix's habit of expressing confusion and forgetfulness on the page comes to feel sloppy rather than spontaneous when one has become suspicious of the narratorial voice. This confusion and forgetfulness is understandable when one imagines a writer stuck in the hospital without access to information, but one wishes he had just edited passages like this rather than left them as is: "The red mist of affection (to quote that wily holy man in Kim -- an irritating man -- what on earth was his name? -- who felt even his own affection for Kim to be a sin) was beginning to swirl."
Ultimately, the book doesn't feel fully thought through or finished. Perhaps it's meant to read like a draft. After all, it's presented as a record of Dessaix's thoughts as they occur to him. But even so, readers need a reason to keep reading and it's the writer's job to give them one, a job that's particularly pressing when the subject is a writer's own life and thoughts. Any memoir, even one that's supposed to feel spontaneous and in-the-moment, requires careful crafting to create a voice that readers will miss when the story has finished.
What Days Are For: A Memoir by Robert Dessaix
Random House Australia