Book Review: Alexander Chee's _How to Write an Autobiographical Novel_

Book Review: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

by Renn

When I read this book, I thought of a garage sale, a person’s entire private life laid out in items immortalizing all the ages they were before. Here, a red-painted penny from a protest. There, an old waiter’s tuxedo. The roses in the garden, though beautiful, are not for sale, though you can get the story associated with them for free if you ask.

Alexander Chee stands in the middle of this well-worn and well-loved collection of oddities. As you walk through, picking items up and putting them back down, he tells you about them, talking as much to history and to himself as he is to you.

True to its title, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays that look inward on the process of creating itself, at the need to examine the personal and political events that have shaped the author’s self in order to write the novel into being. Chee presents the reader with a series of snapshots from various times in his life, from his father’s death to cater-waiting for Pat and William F. Buckley, from San Francisco to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Running through them all is a current of creation, Chee creating different iterations of himself as he creates different iterations of what has always been leading towards this collection of essays.

There are many topics raised and events transpired in these essays that are handled with a light, deft touch. The AIDS crisis, and the cycle of young gay people not having many older, living gays to look up to that continues to this day. Activism, protests, and drag in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. What it’s like to teach in the same classrooms where you were once a student. Chee is so generous with his thoughts, so compelling in drawing the reader within himself, that there were impossible moments where I half-dreamed I’d lived through what he was describing. In some places, the writing fragments, such as when Chee talks around his experience of child sexual assault. In one essay, it draws itself back and away from the individual, as Chee weaves memory with information from family and friends to piece together what he himself didn’t know about a deceased lover. The intimacy of Chee’s voice establishes familiarity while simultaneously reminding the reader that the skill of Chee’s craft lies in his ability to project outside of himself whatever image he wants you to receive.

As autobiographical writing goes, this is a deeply thoughtful and elegant read. As a manifesto, it makes a case for love, literature, and the relentless pursuit of humanity when it is denied to any one group. As a book, it belongs on the shelf of anyone who has ever felt the need to be rid of themselves, in whatever way, shape or form that takes.