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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tanks & Miracles

Displaced by the Soviet Union's invasion of 1968, a young man and his Czech family relocate to Canada, to fulfill "the promise of yet another new life" there. That's one way to sum up the material in this first page of what I assume is a memoir.

But slipping out from under the treads of Soviet tanks is only one of many "miracles" that the narrator has either witnessed or benefited from directly in his life. I put "miracles" in quotation marks, since here they are conflated with other things, with magic and with prayers, and hence the term's meaning is broadened to include everything from surviving an invasion by some 2000 Warsaw pact tanks, to the "miracles" of marriage, childbirth, and "cranky old men seeing their tumors disappear overnight."

This expansive definition of miracles makes for a good attitude toward life (though the cynic in me can't resist wondering what prayers are answered by the existence of tanks and tumors in the first place). Whether it makes for a good memoir opening is doubtful.

Clearly, the narrator has a story to tell. Indeed, he seems to have a grab-bag of stories, surviving Brezhnev's tanks being one of many. He has also survived another displacement, that of his father (whom his mother "sent packing") by her "new man, the Doctor Professor." This domestic restructuring happened eight months before those Soviet tanks rumbled into town, causing the already unstable ground under the narrator's feet to tremble that much harder. From Bratislava he and his family escaped to Vienna, and from there to Toronto—on a plane which, we're told, "did not crash"—in itself, according to the narrator, another miracle.

In selecting "miracles" as his theme, and then defining them so loosely, the author casts such a wide net over his material that it's hard to say what, exactly, this memoir is about, other than the narrator's very eventful life in general—which, however eventful, isn't a fit subject for a memoir, but instead launches this project into the territory of autobiography. Not a good thing.

While an autobiography is essentially a first-person account of someone's life, a memoir has a thematic focus to which the memoirist's history s subordinated. The key to a good memoir, as someone once told me, is that it's not about the memoirist, but about something that the memoirist has experienced first hand—an ordeal or challenge (Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynn Cox), or a relationship (Tobias' Wolff's This Boy's Life, Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle), or life in a particular time and place (Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, This House of Sky, Ivan Doig), or a revolution (Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang), or a spiritual crisis or journey (Practicing Resurrection, by Nora Gallagher, Dan Barker's Godless).

Unless you're already a public figure, or known for some other reason, it's questionable whether anyone will want to read your life story; anyway they would need a reason to read it. The memoir form supplies that reason by treating the author's biography as the well from which a particular story is drawn, and not asking readers to drink the whole well dry.

Here, with this first page, the author suggests many intriguing tales, but unless he draws his thematic net tighter and narrows his focus, he'll drown himself— and his readers— in autobiography. Which would be a shame, since not only does this author obviously have a story to tell, he has estimable gifts of language and voice with which to tell it:
Our father had been laughter, but mainly absence. The stepfather was rules and rigidity. The new regime together was marked by clenched teeth on all our parts. My mother was, I think, happier than she had been, but not when all four of us were together; then she was tears and apologies.
This is good writing. It only needs to serve an equally good purpose, and that purpose should be not to illuminate a whole life, but a particular experience—in this case, I think, how the "miracle" of survival, while it holds out the promise of "yet another life," also subjects its benefactors to further, and sometimes even greater, perils.

As for which portion of his eventful life best illuminates that theme, the author must decide, and cast the rest of his life into the background where it belongs.


  1. Thanks, Peter, for your perceptive comments. I am pleased by your appreciation of the qualities of the piece. The problem is that while of course the piece has a memoir-y feel, it is intended to be a short story. An earlier reader of the whole piece said "this is not a short story" and I protested, "of course it is". That reader suggested cutting the opening 2,000 words, including of course this first page, and starting "the story proper" then. I am not convinced I want to do that. But I must somehow make it more obviously a short story, probably by tightening. Again, thanks for your comments.

  2. I think the reason your readers think you're writing memoir has mostly to do with a lack of dramatic emphasis—no scene, characters, actions, or dialogue: only broad strokes of summary radiating outward from a historical center: the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the Spring of 1968. The other thing that points to nonfiction are what seem to be background details (like the move to Vienna first before reaching Canada) that don't seem to serve any fictional purpose and so one assumes they're autobiographical, else where did they come from, and why?

  3. I enjoyed your writing style but found you to be all over the map. It's like a trip to Disney World when my brother was three years old. He just kept pointing at things saying, "Look at that!" "Look at that!" He was barely finished being fascinated by one character before something else caught his eye; it was a complete lack of focus. I felt like as I was reading your first page you were continually asking me to look in a new direction before I had grasped what I was currently looking at.

  4. Hello.

    You start the piece off by talking about magic, but then switch to miracles. I understand that miracles can be considered magic, but using the word “magic” brings a whole other connotation to your piece.
    I think that by beginning the piece off with “Miracles, it is said, are all around us,” would set a better tone for the piece, I’m assuming since I have just a page to go on.
    The use of “splashy” in the second paragraph as a description of the type of miracle throws me off. It makes me thing of swimming pools and summertime, not sparkling, glittering, amazing miracles.
    A technical thing I noticed was comma usage. There were commas missing where there should be commas, and commas were places that normally work without their curved appearance.
    The last paragraph on the page confused me a bit. I think it has to do with the lack of names. I know that most people say, if you name a character it means that the reader has to remember that character, I think naming, even if it is a fictional name, the father and stepfather of this narrator would ease he confusion a bit.
    I believe that the sentence beginning with “[t]he tanks of August...” belong in their own paragraph, as they don’t really fit with the material before them in the paragraph.

  5. "In selecting "miracles" as his theme, and then defining them so loosely, the author casts such a wide net over his material that it's hard to say what, exactly, this memoir is about..."

    It seems to me as though miracles should be rather loosely defined. If someone is able to set parameters or a definition for what exactly is a miracle and what is not, it sort of qualifies something that is supposed to be non-qualifyable.

    As a theme of his book, one might expect the author to try harder to tackle this issue, but perhaps he is leaving the interpretation to the reader, or at the very least allowing a healthy level of skepticism.