Book Review

Making memorable points, for some wrong reasons

By Ethan Gilsdorf
June 9, 2010

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If the memoir is a bruised, battered, and beleaguered genre, then “Vanishing Point’’ kicks it into the grave for good.

Not that Ander Monson has done anything particularly heinous. The author of another nonfiction book, “Neck Deep and Other Predicaments,’’ a novel, and two collections of poetry, Monson is not out to smash conventions or hammer manifestos on the doors of academe.

But the very admission, almost challenge, put forth in the subtitle to his new book, “Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir,’’ reminds us that in the post-“A Million Little Pieces,’’ reality TV, webcam era, anything nonfiction and told from that precarious, first-person singular pronoun that Monson calls “I’s asserting themselves and their claims to truth’’ is not to be trusted.

Or, only trusted once you know the rules of the game. Monson provides a key.

“Vanishing Point’’ is a collection of essays, musings, and considerations. There is no narrative. We have a kind of memoir-by-kaleidoscope here, but also a discussion about the impossible, infuriating task of writing a memoir. Monson remains a moving target, but it’s a hoot trying to track him down.

In an early essay called “Voir Dire,’’ Monson is the jury foreman on a trial of a defendant charged with bank fraud; before the hearing, he judged a nonfiction book contest. “Listen to what happened to me,’’ he sees each manuscript imploring. “They suppose their I’s are solid, inviolable, made up of evidence and verifiable memory.’’ Here, Monson makes us see the unexpected parallels between the legal system and writerly expression. Elsewhere, he connects the band New Order with the funeral of President Ford.

Each of his assertions is hedged with asides, retractions, tangents, found objects, lists, asterisks, side notes, and typographical tricks. “You no longer have to be notable to write a memoir and have it read,’’ one footnote insists. Later, as if to prove or make fun of the point, the essay “Solipsism’’ begins with the word “me’’ repeated 1,003 times. The aesthetic calls to mind a mashup of David Foster Wallace, W.G. Sebald, David Shields and Montaigne.

Like Shields experimenting in “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto’’ with “conscious, self-conscious, conspicuous appropriation,’’ Monson does much the same. Three chapters use a technique called “Assembloir’’; stealing lines from some 85 memoirs, he slaps them together to propose a memoir ars poetica. Assemble + memoir = assembloir.

If we must swallow the occasional banal comment (“the city contains countless stories’’) and worry this bricolage of text might veer into precious territory, Monson strikes pay dirt often enough. The chapter “Ander Alert’’ is an astute meditation on Internet fame. Monson discovers a Wikipedia page about him, but realizes it’s slated for deletion due to lack of “notability.’’ So he seeks a “champion, someone to come to my electronic wikirescue.’’ Not LOL funny, but clever.

The search takes him to other people named Ander, and other selves within himself: “editor, teacher, writer, job hunter, disc golfer, lawn mower, husband, . . . authoritarian, ironist, Dungeon Master, etc.’’ He finds new versions of himself on MySpace, Facebook, even playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Awash in blogs, YouTube, and Doritos, Monson finds that his “I is a solo I in the middle of thousands of these I’s.’’ His “I is infinitively scaleable.’’ His “I’’ is also exhausted. Which leads him to admit, “I have wanted to vanish for a very long time.’’

Memoir will do that to you.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at


Not a Memoir

By Ander Monson

Graywolf, 208 pp., $16