This prickly, often bleakly beautiful personal history from ’90s It-novelist gone astray Benjamin Anastas is like a Rorschach test for readers of memoir. Those with a predilection for the genre will be rewarded with a harrowing psychological journey out of despair and into a fragile peace. Less forbearing readers may find Anastas’s account of his travails shrill and self-pitying, and might feel the urge to throw the book, or perhaps even its author, down a stairwell. No one will be able to deny, however, that “Too Good to Be True” has a messy urgency and a distinctive voice all its own.
Moving back and forth through time in 13 brief, impressionistic chapters, Anastas’s memoir traces a promising literary career derailed by debt, writer’s block and romantic turmoil. A former editor at the highbrow literary mag Grand Street, Anastas is known primarily for his slight, well-received novel “An Underachiever’s Diary” from 1998. As his fortunes decline, he is forced to undergo such humiliating episodes as feeding spare change into a Coinstar machine to buy lunch for his young son and having late-night robocalls from collection agencies impinge on a budding relationship.
He captures very well the panicky, spiraling free fall of disaster, the way seemingly minor setbacks can quickly accumulate into catastrophe. He understands, too, how grindingly enervating poverty can be, how it saps one’s will and self-worth until it has produced a numb, fatalistic paralysis. Apparently no memory is too excruciating to include; the book feels at times like some kind of extreme therapeutic exercise in the venting of free-floating rage and sorrow, a cri de coeur against “love and all its trampled feelings,” against wasted promise, against fate.
Such relentless self-examination would quickly become claustrophobic were it not for the sheer force of Anastas’s prose, of “the words that I’ve been pulling from the sunrise and the city’s quiet breathing while it sleeps.” He is a gifted stylist, lyrical, precise, alive to the textures and colors and smells of the world flowing by. Several of the passages are magical, especially one where he sits drinking whiskey by a lake as the light fades and the realization sinks in that his marriage is truly over, crippled by the unnamed things that “hung between us like fog on a mirror that we were too afraid to clear.” If Anastas could yoke his verbal talents to a sensibility less constricted and self-absorbed, less stunted by pain and rage, he would be unstoppable.
Instead, “Too Good to Be True” ends up posing a vexing extraliterary question: Is it necessary to like the protagonist of a memoir in order to enjoy his story, or is that a sentimental, unsophisticated reaction? At what point does effulgent writing transform sordid or unlikable source material? If this book were a novel, we could applaud the author for having created a memorable rascal, a pungent antihero a la Updike or Roth or Donleavy. Memoir as a genre creates its own taxonomy of values, however, and the undercurrent of truth casts a queasy ethical shadow over the whole affair, as if the reader were being enlisted in some shameful duplicity.
Obviously, everyone will have his own answers to these questions, his own reactions to Anastas’s confessions. To my mind, what repels is not so much that the author acted poorly or was hurtful to those around him — we all do that, at some point, like it or not — as that he seems unable to hold himself the least bit accountable. He excoriates his ex-wife for betraying him but skates past the fact that his infidelity preceded hers; he insists that his poor money-management skills were a result of incompetent parenting by his feckless hippie parents, who considered “being broke a protest vote against the American Dream.” The ugliest chapter in the book takes the form of a vituperative letter to his ex-wife’s lover; in a staggering display of passive-aggressive spite, Anastas drops broad and Internet-friendly hints to the man’s identity without, of course, giving him the dignity of a forum to defend or explain himself.
Perhaps the biggest defect is how this self-absorption confines his recognition of failure — as beautifully limned and poetically related as it is — within narrowly personal margins. At a time when so many people are struggling with debt and unemployment and the resultant loss of self-worth, you’d think Anastas would take a moment to fit his story into a larger pattern, to attempt some empathy with the millions of others who share his predicament, perhaps to register a rueful protest against the tide of collective materialism or maybe even show some good old-fashioned populist rage. That really would be too good to be true. Instead, we are left with this striking but oddly dissonant account.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
By Benjamin Anastas
New Harvest. 177 pp. $25