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HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL
By Alexander Chee
280 pp. Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Paper, $15.99.
“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” is a convincing appellation for an article accumulating by Alexander Chee, accustomed that he’s beginning from the success of a atypical that on the face of it was annihilation but autobiographical. That book, the accurately acclaimed ballsy “The Queen of the Night” (2016), was an operatic ball that followed a fabulous 19th-century acute as she rises to acclaim in Paris and navigates Second Empire artifice on a calibration to accomplish Victor Hugo proud. What could be further from Chee’s own life? But one of the things you apprentice in this accumulating is that, for best writers, “novels are accidents at their start,” an acknowledgment to questions the columnist never knew to ask. In Chee’s telling, the writer’s activity consistently lurks aloof above the page, and not alone in the way that Gustave Flaubert was Madame Bovary or Henry James the prepubescent charlatan of “What Maisie Knew.” In a absolute article alleged “Girl,” Chee recalls his aboriginal time in drag, on Halloween in the Castro in 1990. The corrective transformation accustomed him to collapse his identities as a gay man, a Korean-American and a New England displace into a adorable totality: “This adorableness I acquisition back I put on drag, then: It is fabricated up of these talismans of power, a acclimation act of the self-hatreds of at atomic two cultures, an act I’ve affianced in my accomplished life, actuality on the blueprint I accomplish of my face.”
If writing, too, is a anatomy of annoyance for Chee, it is additionally an act of abstruse abracadabra and transference. In an article annual his career as a able Tarot reader, he asks of the cards what readers ask of stories: “the activity of article advancing true.” Still, few books fit the bill of “autobiographical novel” bigger than this collection, which is abiding in asperous coming-of-age chronology, from the author’s animal activation as an barter apprentice in Mexico (“a summer of absent absurd things”) to the afterlife of his ancestor at 43, afterward a car accident, back Chee was 15; his ancestry as a biographer at Wesleyan University, area he advised beneath Annie Dillard; his administration in San Francisco at the acme of the AIDS crisis; the advertisement of his (explicitly autobiographical) aboriginal novel, “Edinburgh,” in 2001; and his ability as a reader, biographer and adviser who longs, in the after-effects of the 2016 presidential election, to advance his acceptance “to addition world, one area bodies amount autograph and art added than war.” The book ends with the admirable sentiment, cribbed from an email Chee wrote his acceptance afterwards the acclamation of Donald Trump, that “a novel, should it survive, protects what a missile can’t.”
Chee leavens his heaviest capacity — the annihilation of the gay association in the backward 1980s and aboriginal ’90s, the repressed anamnesis of animal corruption that aggressive “Edinburgh” — with absorbing episodes like his appointment as a aide at William and Pat Buckley’s Park Avenue maisonette, a job that prompted a crisis of censor accustomed Buckley’s abominable angle to cast AIDS patients on their wrists and buttocks. (On addition accouterment assignment, this one at the Buckleys’ home in Connecticut, he glimpses Buckley branch to the basin to bathe with a macho staffer.) There is additionally an annual of his worshipful, nigh-religious appointment with Chloë Sevigny in the elevator of a architecture both are subletting; a affectionate chestnut of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he attends adjoin his bigger acumen alone to wind up a catechumen who readily defends M.F.A. programs adjoin their critics (“It is not an escape from the absolute world, to my mind, but a battle with it”); and an article about burying a rose garden alfresco his Brooklyn accommodation that affords him the befalling to altercate the autograph action beneath the guise of horticulturist.