“I think that I have always resisted the idea of objective cultural criticism in a vacuum. The subject lends itself to drawing connections to yourself — when I look at someone like Britney Spears, it isn’t just at the level of public scrutiny.”
There’s an emphasis on character action in fiction that I’ve always found hilariously American. We don’t read for historical perspective, for philosophy, for abstraction or allegory or poetic language as readily as readers elsewhere. Instead, there’s something distinctly boot-strappy about our attentions. The sense that we follow a character through their various arcs and impacts on the world seems somehow inextricable from our belief in self-made millionaires, our shark tanks and injunctions to “be all that you can be!”
The use of foreign language in this book is worth mentioning—Greenwell includes Bulgarian not just as a cheap device to evoke place (although it does lend the story much realism and authority). The words are deployed with poetic precision: such as in the rhythm of chakai, chakai, chakai (wait, wait, wait); they are used to characterize people, such as Mitko’s love for the word podaruk (gift); and to reflect the narrator’s to make sense of his world (strahoten means awesome, a word “built from a root signifying dread”). Most importantly, it is used to cut deeper into the core of the narrator’s emotional question: priyatel means both friend and lover—which one is he really to Mitko?
I do not believe there’s a certain age at which a writer is suddenly prepared to write a memoir, though I sometimes wish the criteria were this easy, this concrete. There are other metrics that could be used: the amount of major events, the degree of trauma or enlightenment, the critical distance the writer has established from the narrative. By that final item, I mean, how close can the writer approach the material before becoming overwhelmed by it or simply unable to draw out its significance. If only this were just a function of time. And if only we could quantify that perfect balance between sentimentality and ambivalence, when the first threatens to make the narrative so saccharine that it’s barely palatable and the second can just make even the most engaging prose flatline.
“When I teach nonfiction, we talk about writing to a question. If you write what you already know, it’s not going to be interesting for your readers. You need to be looking for some kind of a discovery, and so I went to Yale to see what and what hadn’t changed, because my story needed to be contextualized. After hearing from young women that their experiences were just as bad as mine, it floored me. That’s the moment I knew I had a book.”