We're quoting from an old book: Even with an extra hour this weekend, we couldn't figure out what to do with Chanel Miller's new book, Know My Name: A Memoir.
Know My Name may be the most fascinating text of the modern political era, the era which has ended up giving us Donald J. Trump. That said, let's set Miller's fascinating book to the side. Much more important is the inability of upper-end journalists to see that Miller's memoir is actually a novel—is, in fact, a bit of crazoid fairy tale.
There's nothing wrong with fairy tales and the like, of course, as long as they're kept in their place.
To cite one example, Jesus spoke in parables. He offered no charts or graphs or accumulations of statistics or facts.
Aesop reasoned in fables. Basic precepts can be conveyed through such forms.
That said, Miller's book concerns an actual real-life event, not an imagined race between a hare and a tortoise. It also concerns a very important social problem, one our struggling society is struggling to address.
Simply put, Miller's memoir doesn't show a lot of respect for the importance of that deeply important problem. Much more significantly, people within professional guilds at upper-end orgs like the New York Times seem unable to notice this giant flaw with the widely-praised book Miller has offered.
What's wrong with the volume Miller has offered? As a starting point, we'd start where Miller did—with the very first paragraph in her Introduction.
Miller starts with a discourse on method. Her paragraph reads like this:
MILLER (page vii): INTRODUCTIONHas Miller actually "told this story" "to the best of [her] ability?" We have no way of knowing, nor is that ultimately significant.
The fact that I spelled subpoena, subpeena may suggest that I am not qualified to tell this story. But all court transcripts are at the world's disposal, all news articles online. This is not the ultimate truth, but it is mine, told to the best of my ability. If you want it through my eyes and ears, to know what it felt like inside my chest, what it's like to hide in the bathroom during trial, this is what I provide. I give what I can, you take what you need.
We will suggest that that's a slightly peculiar way to start a book about so important a topic. Beyond that, we'll suggest that something odd is implied in that passage:
If it's information and facts we want, we can look up the transcripts and news reports ourselves. Miller will focus on how she felt at various times. As readers, we can "take what we need," whatever that means, from the account she provides.
For better or worse, Miller is writing about actual events which involve actual people and an array of very important subjects. Arguably, an author is possibly being a bit willful when she tells us that we can get the facts for ourselves while she tells us how she felt.
Meanwhile, the weirdness of "subpoena/subpeena" is replicated all through Miller's book. So is the instant sympathy grab in which it's suggested that someone is saying that Miller isn't qualified to tell this story because she once misspelled a word—in which we're instantly asked to picture Miller "hiding in a bathroom" during Brock Turner's trial.
Miller is going to give what she can; we will take what we need! Arguably, this could be seen as a slightly flippant, notably weird approach to such an important topic.
Then too, there's the way this very young person started her Chapter 1. We posted this somewhat peculiar material two weeks ago. Today we'll add one point:
MILLER (page 1): 1.In this somewhat peculiar opening passage, Miller rattles a list of points designed to let us know that she's shy. This opening format—I am shy—continues through a third full paragraph, spilling over onto the second page of this very "writerly" book.
I am shy. In elementary school for a play about a safari, everyone else was an animal. I was grass. I've never asked a question in a large lecture hall. You can find me hidden in the corner of any exercise class. I'll apologize if you bump into me. I'll accept every pamphlet you hand out on the street. I've always rolled my shopping cart back to its place of origin. If there's no more half-and-half on the counter at the coffee shop, I'll drink my coffee black. If I sleep over, the blankets will look like they've never been touched.
I've never thrown my own birthday party. I'll put on three sweaters before I ask you to turn on the heat. I'm okay with losing board games. I stuff my coins haphazardly into my purse to avoid holding up the checkout line. When I was little I wanted to grow up and become a mascot, so I'd have the freedom to dance without being seen.
As we noted previously, this passage doesn't just tell us that Miller is shy; it also presents her as the world's most self-effacing person. She's perpetually putting others first, in every imaginable way. Such absurdly self-flattering portraits continue all through the book, often in the face of behaviors which might seem to contradict or challenge the self-flattering portraits we're being "provided."
Something else is somewhat odd about that opening passage. In the second paragraph of Chapter 1, Miller tells us that she's so shy that she wanted to grow up and become a mascot, so she'd have the freedom to dance without being seen.
That may even be true! That said, by the time she describes the central event in her story, Miller is literally dancing on a chair, though possibly not on tables, at a drunken Stanford frat party. There's nothing "wrong" with doing that, but we're never told how this behavior comports with the humble-bragging self-portrait we're "provided" as she opens her book.
These points are trivial, a person might say, but that's exactly the problem. This book is larded with humble-bragging, self-flattering trivia and is quite routinely contemptuous of actual persons and elementary facts.
The author of these endless distractions is very young. Beyond that, she underwent a life-altering series of events starting on the night of that party. That said, no such excuse can be generated for the upper-end, upper-class pseudo-journalists who have somehow managed to read this book without seeing its giant, relentless flaws.
Miller actually is a "gifted young writer," as one such reviewer has said. She's also very young and, perhaps understandably, is deeply self-involved.
In even a slightly rational world, we would expect major journalist to be able to notice such facts. But we've been failed by our upper-class journalists for at least three decades now, and the wages of such incessant failure is intellectual death.
We're going to spend an additional week writing about this young person's remarkably novelized memoir. Much more importantly, we're going to think about the older, upper-class journalists who have taken what they needed from Miller's novelized fairy tale.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our upper-class culture is fatuous. Also, "the wages of sin is death," an old book once alleged.
The wages of our upper-class fatuity have already given us death all over the world. That said, our upper-class posers are going to continue to take what they need from noticeably peculiar books written by very young people.
They're going to take what they need, and what they seem to need is the simple-minded certainty of fable. They need their heroes and villains neat. Unfortunately, the wages of such childish behavior is intellectual death.
Tomorrow: The various roads not traveled