Somewhere someone, maybe not even a writer, has figured out the precise point where all memoir should begin. And somewhere someone else has figured out no such point exists. It should be easier to begin a memoir. If a memoir is about an experience, it would seem logical to begin at the beginning of the experience. But because experience exists within context, such beginnings aren’t really beginnings, are they? I was pleasantly surprised when the brothers Barthelme began Double Down not in the crib, but in their days of maturity, a few slender pages before they discovered their addiction. I enjoyed the brief introduction and the plunge to the present. Throughout most of the memoir, the narrative is conversational, the tone unhurried. While the pace is steady (not rhythmic) the chorus of “we” unhinges me every time. Still, from the beginning, something about the language has me interested as a reader and as a writer. By entering Double Down on the edge of the authors’ experience, I am intellectually, though not emotionally, vested in the characters—to a point.
As a writer, I have to know where the narrative leads. Before that, I worry about where to begin. Opening too far before the center of the experience may reveal more than I intend. Opening later may give me the opportunity to add color to otherwise shaded narrative. Opening too late means I have to double back and fill in spaces to bring the reader to the point of the narrative. Maybe there is no one way to begin my memoir. While I like the sense of starting it where the experience begins, the problem is separating the experience from its context. The Barthelme’s choice to begin the narrative just before their gambling spree feels like the perfect beginning. And maybe it is the best choice for this story, but because the narrative takes such a repetitive, almost obsessive turn, it feels like the problem stems from the opening chapter. To create context the narrators often revisit the same event or thought. It feels as if there is no theme, no solid ground. There is an undercurrent in the narrative that carries the “I blame my father” stream a bit too far. Instead of rushing in to the past, the brothers choose to back in by sharing glimpses of their parents and glances of other characters. From there, they delve deeper in to their mother and deeper still in to their father. Finally, as they reach the height of their gambling, they point out, again, that they blame their father for their belief that nothing is, for them, impossible.
By starting the narrative as they settle in to Hattiesburg, they risk the readers’ sense of direction and time. Switching between the gambling scenes and the non-gambling scenes, I often lose track of when things are happening and how much is at stake. There is something to be said for the linear narrative. Specifically, the narrative often travels between their father’s death to the casino floor, and back. I lose track of how getting charged for attempting to cheat a casino is a significant period of their life. More than that, I don’t get the sense they realize how significant this event could have been. It seems they chalk it up to an experience, a warning to fellow academics. While they do eventually stop gambling, it is, according to them, because the magic is gone. There is no warning: don’t risk more than you can lose; don’t lose more than you can risk. Instead, there is the warning: don’t expect too much of your kids. God forbid they live up to your expectations. I am disappointed because I have a suspicion that the memoir is not complete. Double Day does not live up to its ambitious beginning.
I haven’t given up on the idea of starting a memoir at the moment before the experience unfolds. No matter where I enter, I need to be sure to fill in relevant information and to return to the narrative. Most importantly, I need to decide where my memoir begins.