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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Year of 14 Jobs

One of the hallmarks of good writing is its power to suggest. This is true not only for poetry and fiction, but for works of nonfiction, too, for essays and memoirs, even sometimes for journalism. Conclusive statements may or may not always convince us. But when authors provide readers with the raw, visceral evidence from which such conclusions may be drawn, allowing us to reach them on our own, then the conclusions are a lot harder to argue with, since the only person we have to argue with is ourselves.

In this opening passage from a memoir-in-progress about a year in a woman's life, everything is stated, and little if anything is implied. We are told, among other things, that during the course of that year she held fourteen jobs:
Some wild women may have 14 lovers in a year. More introspective types may read 14 books or see 14 movies annually. Some fun-loving women might purchase 14 swimming suits (my friend Dottie owned 18), swim in 14 different swimming pools, or scream through 14 roller coaster rides. In 1969, I held a total of 14 different part-time jobs ...
The last sentence here ("In 1969, I held a total of 14 different jobs") states the memoir's central subject, which the passage as a whole puts into perspective, or tries to, with its series of obsessed women. At the same time the passage highlights the uniqueness of its subject: how many people do you know, male or female, who in the course of one year have held fourteen different jobs? On the whole the paragraph is well-written. It has the cumulative power of many such parallel constructions ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". . . ). And it offers us something irresistible: an eccentric, struggling heroine.

Yet somehow the passage, and the opening as a whole, fails. The author seems less intent on dramatizing her material than on positioning and arguing for it, telling us not just what she has to offer, but why we should care. Because in a year other people may have fourteen lovers or fourteen books or fourteen bathing suits. But other people don't have fourteen lovers. Which may or may not be true (you see how easy it is to argue with such statements?). And even if it's true, do jobs compare with lovers—let alone with books and bathing suits? But even accepting the logic of the argument, it remains to be seen whether that argument justifies a memoir.

But analogies aren't the point; the point is, or should be, that in a given year a young woman held fourteen jobs.

That point, or something like it, provided Charles Bukowski with the subject of Factotum, his second novel. It follows Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, from one dreary, degrading, menial job to the next after he has been rated 4-F by the armed services and thereby exempted from serving in World War II. The novel consists of 87 brief passages or chapters, and an equal number of crappy jobs. The first passage begins:
I arrived in New Orleans in the rain at 5 o'clock in the morning. I sat around in the station for a while but the people depressed me so I took my suitcase and went out in the rain and began walking. I didn't know where the rooming houses were, where the poor section was.

I had a cardboard suitcase that was falling apart. It had once been black but the black coating had peeled off and yellow cardboard was exposed. I had tried to solve that by putting black shoepolish over the exposed cardboard. As I walked along in the rain the shoepolish on the suitcase ran and unwittingly I rubbed black streaks on both legs of my pants as I switched the suitcase from hand to hand.
So begins Bukowski/Chinaski's descent into the underworld of unemployment, with him cast to the very lowest circle, that of the unemployable. Note how, in opening his novel, Bukowski states nothing. He doesn't announce his intended theme, let alone make a case for it. Nor is there any intent to force perspective on us before we've been presented with any matter (scenes, events, experiences) to put into perspective. Instead what we get here is the matter itself: a down-at-the-heels guy in search of a rooming house in the rain, whose search will soon turn to one for gainful employment. Meanwhile his luck, like the black shoe polish on his suitcase, is already draining into the gutters.

My suggestion to the author of this memoir is that she begin similarly, with concrete matter rather than with abstract statements. In due time we will learn that her fourteen jobs "lasted anywhere from one day . . . to a few months," just as we will learn that the memoirist "wasn't like some of the other girls [she] knew at school who worked at the local drugstore." Such facts are best learned through experience. And the proper goal of the memoirist, no less than that of the novelist, isn't to present information, but to render experience.


  1. Peter, I appreciate the critique, and I agree. I don't know if it makes a difference that this is the first page of the mss. introduction and is not the first page of narrative which arrives about two pages later. Does a memoir need an introduction or is it better to do without one? Oops, I might have goofed in sending the wrong type of page. Coincidentially, I've been inspired by Charles Bukowski to give myself the alter ego name of Veronica in "The Year of 14 Jobs" as he used the name Henry in his pieces. Is that fair game in a memoir?

  2. Whether you call it a prologue or an introduction or the first chapter, it's still your best foot forward into the story--or should be. And usually writers use prologues not to summarize what's to come but to dramatize it; you've done the opposite. I don't think you should "introduce" the story; I think you should just go ahead and tell it.

    As for using an alter-ego name for a memoir, I don't think you want to do that. Bukowski was writing fiction; you're not. Once you name your narrator Veronica you've taken a big step into fictional territory, and readers will have every reason to assume that other elements of your tale are equally invented: not a good thing for memoir.