Since the day I received an e-ARC of this book via NetGalley (Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt!), I have been excited about reading this book. Why? The title of the novel intrigued me. I have tried my hand at writing a novel (at the tender age of 17), a novel that was written with much fervour, and scrapped with much disgust, only to be resurrected once again, and swept under the carpet for the last time this year.
Why do I bring up that incident from my personal life into this book review? Because I had a profound realisation that the reason I was attracted to the “Request” button on a review copy of this book was my failed attempt at writing my debut novel. I, at this stage of my life, wanted to explore what went wrong at 17, tpsee if I can make things right at 19.
And, my dear friends, I am glad to say that “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” by Alexander Chee has given me fodder, scratch that, manna for rebuilding myself as a writer.
This book is the author’s first collection of non-fiction essays. “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” have been his works of fiction. I haven’t read these books yet. Special emphasis to the word “yet”. Because I totally intend to get my hands on a copy of both these books and read them. (my already overstacked TBR pile groans, as it sees me type this line. Sorry, TBR pile, you may have to segregate yourselves using an ABC analysis technique soon (commerce students who got the reference, give me a hi-5))
First things first. The cover of the book. I loved the creative display of the name of the book and the name of the author. And of course, the brightness of the red cover is only a precursor for the attractiveness of the content covered by the cover. I want to get my hands on a paperback copy of this book! 😦 (Though that task would be futile because I have copied down all my favourite passages from the book into my book diary already)
In this collection of essays, Alexander Chee targets a variety of topics. I’d like to give a chapter-wise analysis of the book in this review. (Chapter = essay)
The Curse: In the opening chapter, Chee shares his experience as an exchange student in the southern Mexico city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and how he gained fluency in Spanish (in a very logical way, which should be the ideal way to go about learning any language).
The Querent: This chapter is one that interested the inner-psychology geek in me. Chee shares his experience of being a “psychic” and his foray into reading tarot cards. This was my introduction to the art of tarot card reading and I have copied down quite a few passages from this chapter into my book diary. I also am inclined to getting a tarot card reading? Hmm.
The Writing Life: This chapter has been named after the book by Annie Dillard. Why? Because she happened to be one of Chee’s teachers at Wesleyan University and a major influence in his years of perfecting the art of writing. This chapter is the first full-fledged chapter about writing and writing alone. I surely took home a lot of lessons about writing from this chapter. I am also very positive that writers of any age / level of experience would benefit from reading the unminced, concise guidance given by Annie Dillard through her pupil.
1989: Here, Chee shares his heart-stopping experience of participating in a protest against government inaction regarding the AIDS epidemic.
Girl: This chapter was an introduction to another concept I had heard of only in passing and never fully explored: the drag culture. Chee shares his intimate thoughts about the whole experience of dressing up as a girl, down to the exact intricacies of wearing makeup. Two quotes that I sincerely loved from this chapter:
Being real means being at home in this face, just as it is when I wake up.
Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.
After Peter: This essay about Peter David Kelloran and the impression he had on Chee, without really realising it, is an example of a perfect eulogy.
My Parade: Chee ponders over the merits and advantages of getting into an MFA program (something that’s on my bucket list too). This chapter gave me a fresh perspective about the program itself. I have, after reading this chapter, come to the conclusion that I would love to pursue this degree, once I’m older, wiser and hopefully loaded with a bank account as awesome as Harry Potter’s.
Mr. and Mrs. B: This chapter closely follows “The Querent” in my list of favourite chapters. Chee writes about his experience as working as a cater-waiter in New York City, and then as a waiter in the household of a man who “every gay man of my generation knew him: as an enemy”.
100 Things About Writing a Novel: If I could copy down this entire chapter onto the wall of my bedroom, I’d do it in a heartbeat. This, amigos, is the chapter I loved the most from the book. The creativity that Chee has shown in presenting brilliant content blew me away. Phew.
The Rosary: In this chapter, Chee writes about his garden. His beloved rose garden. The lengths to which he went to to maintain his rose garden. I’m not much of a gardening freak meself (eew, earthworm, EEW! *runs away as fast as possible*). So this chapter was an introduction to the art of gardening and the petalant nature of roses too. (Gettit? Petulant? Petalant?)
Inheritance: In 2000, Chee accidentally became the director of the All Souls Unitarian Church’s Monday Night hospitality program, and stayed on as acting director for three years. This is an essay about the lessons he learned while working at that position.
Impostor: Chee writes about a very unusual housing arrangement, and the impact it had on his writer-self-image. (self-image that is very specific to writing? I tried to coin a word! *facepalm*)
The Autobiography of My Novel: I do not wish to say anything about this chapter. I’m leaving this part of the review as a cliffhanger, in the hope that you WILL buy a copy of this book, read each and every word with as much as relish as I did, and emerge as a different person the minute you finally snap the book shut.
What I liked about this book is the richness of detail in every experience that the author wishes to write about, the author’s straightforward and razor-sharp opinion about politics, and his introspective and logical thoughts about the art of writing. Also, his ability to craft complex sentences. My ability to read really complex sentences has greatly improved by reading this book, and I hope I have subconsciously imbibed the art of writing lengthy yet sensible sentences, so that the reader doesn’t feel like drowning himself in a bucket of water the moment he reaches the full stop at the end of the sentence. (Are you alive yet, reader?)
I give this book a 5/5 star rating and recommend it to every writer and author, irrespective of the stage of success you are at now. Never written a word but want to do so? This book is for you. Written a double-digit number of books and won many awards? This book is for you too. Know someone who’s a writer but don’t know how to support them? Haha, you can read this book too.
Read it. ASAP. It’s one of the best books 2018 has seen.