‘Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir’ by Ander Monson

Vanishing Point

Not a Memoir

Ander Monson

Graywolf Press: 192 pp., $16

"I can only try to make my burden of proof, and show you a preponderance of evidence, of fact and fiction, on my behalf," writes Ander Monson in "Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir." "I can only stand up and (think about what it means to) speak for myself." The knotty genius of the book resides in that parenthesis and in the sidebars, footnotes and digressions that crowd the text. This is not the meta-play of Donald Barthelme (see, I'm a story!) or even of James Agee (oh, the moral complexity of telling this story!), but the meditations of a culture-obsessed nerd who debates the "Inclusionist" versus "Deletionist" philosophies of Wikipedia editors, filters Gerald Ford's funeral through songs by New Order and admires "transubstantiation" in the "food system" of Doritos because of his own "desire to occasionally obliterate myself and become something/someone else."

Monson is a poet, essayist and novelist whose work has consistently pushed the boundaries of form. With "Vanishing Point," a collection of essays cemented by brief, interstitial musings, he is again at play. (Full disclosure: Two of the 19 pieces originally appeared in The Believer, where I edit the book reviews.) In "Exteriority," the text bleeds off the edges of the page, while the three "Assembloir" essays that provide the book's backbone are composed of quotes from other memoirs, in the style of Jonathan Lethem's essay "The Ecstasy of Influence" and David Shields' provocative "Reality Hunger."

But in all this fooling about with form, something serious is at stake. Monson's work seeks to move beyond form itself to an engagement with emotional truth. At the same time, he remains skeptical of just how much the complexity of human experience can be organized, how much order or understanding can actually be achieved.

As its subtitle suggests, "Vanishing Point" forgoes the traditional satisfactions of the memoir genre for the more essayistic satisfactions of a mind at work. Moving through a series of essays with seemingly disparate subjects, Monson ventures from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Tucson, leaving behind a succession of older versions of himself. "[M]aybe the self is a wiki," he conjectures: "anyone or anything can change it, but we could trace back each edit if we wanted to." Such images and metaphors recur throughout the book, and as they accrue we see that the pieces add up to something like a single lyric essay or, yes, a memoir.

Yet if Monson is a memoirist, he is not a memoirist looking back. He is the memoirist as "I" right now, a present-tense "I" that exists in a state of flux, forced to grapple with the fiction of self-creation demanded by the act of writing. The effect of all this self-consciousness can be occasionally annoying (which Monson, painfully aware of the pitfalls of memoir, acknowledges). But more often, it is absolutely engrossing. "Vanishing Point" asks hard questions about the limits, possibilities and responsibilities of nonfiction, questions that are especially relevant in a culture obsessed with reality television, virtual reality role-playing games and tell-all books.

Although moments of elegy or pathos underscore much of Monson's writing, these are buoyed by a sharp wit. "Perhaps I am expecting my role to be this: provider of hilarious food products to skeptical friends," he writes. "Cheerleader for unpopular snacks. I have a soft spot for unpopularity, the failed experiment. Sad product, the multiplication of texture and chemical flavor, I hold you to my chest."

"Vanishing Point's" most daring formal experiment, by far, is its online presence. The text is marked by daggers (†) that signal readers to turn to a Web page, where they can follow the author's thinking as it continues to expand or change over time. Here, Monson seems to be reaching for a form that better mirrors the protean nature of the self, a more complex system than the book alone allows.

"Maybe the daggers are more like clickable links," he writes, "like this whole thing is an expanding wiki, an increasingly fat American self growing and growing, a ball getting larger the more I think about it, the more you think about it." Going from book to website is a bit awkward, of course, but it leaves us with the impression that this is just the forerunner of what must, inevitably, come next: a digital reading technology that does more than bridge the isolated empires of print and Web.

"Vanishing Point" and its accompanying website (http://otherelectricities.com/vp/index.html) offer the record of one open system — the self — interacting with another — the world — and trying to make sense of the experience. Here, we have one writer reporting back on America, which through his eyes (and "I's") is revealed as increasingly technology-absorbed and self-obsessed. Regardless of how deeply inward Monson looks, there is always an equal and opposite reaching out, an algorithm of introspection and connection that leaves both the writer and the reader less alone.

Crist is reviews editor at the Believer and the author of the forthcoming book "Everything After."

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