THERE now exists in the literary lexicon a phrase to describe the act of embellishing or otherwise making the truth more interesting than it really is, especially when it comes to relating autobiographical events in a so-called memoir: to “pull a Frey.”
With that presumably in mind, St. Martin’s Press has tagged a disclaimer onto Augusten Burroughs’ latest, a collection of essays titled “Possible Side Effects.” This seems like a good idea. “Some of the events described happened as related,” the author’s note states, and “others were expanded and changed. Some of the individuals portrayed are composites of more than one person, and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well.”
The book purports to recall scenes from the author’s dysfunctional childhood in Massachusetts, perverse fantasies, jobs he has hated and, of course, his now-infamous addictions, so perhaps a more apt description of this book would be “true-ish stories,” though so much in them seems contrived that this seems a misnomer. Burroughs’ follow-up to bestsellers “Magical Thinking” and “Running With Scissors” is worthy for its occasional crackling humor, but that’s about it.
Whether Burroughs is describing successfully begging his mother for a puppy, hoping for John Updike’s early demise so that the noted author’s first editions will rise in value (sort of a joke, but not really funny) or recalling his grandmother’s racism, each of these so-called essays is consistently banal.
The theme, subject and object are Augusten Burroughs (excepting the petty jabs at family members). When he charts his mother’s manic depression, it’s still all about him. And guess what? He’s not that interesting.
Insight is completely absent from this collection. In “The Georgia Thumper,” Burroughs writes of how, after his grandmother’s death (a woman he detested and verbally abused), “I realized I was sad. But only because I wasn’t more sad.”
The author’s narcissism always shines through: In “Little Crucifixions,” Burroughs recalls his boyhood visits to a dermatologist, a woman who had survived a terrible car accident and suffered third-degree burns on her face, leaving it severely scarred.
“When she described her accident and the fire and her ugly face,” Burroughs writes, “I felt she was describing me. Even though I wasn’t burned. For some reason, I felt like I was the same. And suddenly, I liked her face very much. And I almost wished I had the same face. Because then I would have a reason for feeling the way that I always felt: defective. So if I looked ruined on the outside, at least I would know why I felt ruined.”
Part of Burroughs’ ostensibly charming technique is to express repeatedly his sense of self-loathing and shame. This pseudo-self-deprecation seems calculated to win over readers, but it doesn’t. Instead it is merely pathetic. (And as in the instance above, repugnant.)
Indeed, there is no organizing principle to the book but the author’s likes (“I collect college T-shirts”) and dislikes. Buying a box of Kleenex in Britain, he grumpily wonders, “Why aren’t our plain, old, ordinary Kleenex tissues in America this soft and thick?” Or the decline and fall of the American tomato: “It makes me sad.” What’s troubling and detestable is his apparent dislike of women, as evinced by his frequent slurs, profanity and vulgar epithets.
To be fair, there are a few highlights in the book -- although they seem more like welcome respite. “Mint Threshold” is a very funny recollection of the author’s travails at an advertising agency, working as a copywriter on the Junior Mints account. “Getting to No You” follows Burroughs’ despair at turning 30, and his unlucky dating experiences.
Mostly, though, this is a terrible book: shallow, poorly written and worst of all, boring. Burroughs must think his edgy past -- cocaine at 16, alcoholism and so on -- makes him sympathetic or at least compelling. He’s the hero of his own life, having endured years of suffering and self-sabotage. But “Possible Side Effects” reads only like the diary of a disturbed teenager. It’s neither engaging nor provocative, but a book you’ll feel embarrassed to have picked up, and one you’ll want to put away and never see again.
Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of six anthologies of poetry, including “Solitude” and “Motherhood.”