How Memory Works: Brian Blanchfield and Mark Polanzak Embrace Narrative Fallibility


If I begin this by saying, “If memory serves” or some equivalent, please be aware that I’m turning head-first into the cliché. Because that’s the thing: sometimes, memory has to serve. One of the most breathtaking accounts of a live performance I’ve ever experienced comes from a Lester Bangs essay about seeing Van Morrison in the mid-1970s. It is jaw-droppingly good; so good, in fact, that the event as I imagine it gives me chills whenever I think about it. Consider that: a concert that I’ve imagined based on the notes and memories of a writer who’s been dead for over thirty years. Lester Bangs might well have hoaxed us all, creating rock-writer apocrypha out of thin air. Would it matter?

The use of memory as an aesthetic device is a limited one, to be sure. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist. Eric Weisbard’s entry in the 33 1/3 series focused on Guns’n’Roses’ 1991 Use Your Illusion, but rather than do a deep dive back into the last gasp of a particular style heard in a particular moment in history, Weisbard instead largely relies on his memories of the album, embracing the way that time and distance have shaped and reshaped two albums’ worth of songs in his mind. In 2007, Dirty Projectors released an album called Rise Above, which took its inspiration from frontman David Longstreth’s memories of the songs heard on Black Flag’s Damaged. Even taking the sonic chasm between the two bands’ sounds into consideration, it’s a fascinating work, and a portrait of how Longstreth listened to the album, of what moments endured and which ones slipped into the ether.

You can make art from the gaps in your memory if you try hard enough. And sometimes, that fallibility can make for something much more powerful than dry and solidly researched prose. Two recent books defy easy categorization even as they poke at the mind’s ability to retain information. Their very structures contain elements that embrace unreliability and ambiguity; the result is a reading experience that eludes expectations, and is all the more thrilling for it.


The cover design of Mark Polanzak’s POP! features five descriptive phrases that are crossed out: “A Novel,” “A Memoir,” “Fictional,” “Fabulist,” and “Nonfictional.” Finally, it settles on something more general, perhaps the only accurate description of what’s about to come–namely, “A Book.” And from the opening pages, we know what we’re in for: Polanzak presents an account, at first rendered as absurdism, of his father’s death several years earlier as a result of a massive heart attack. This event, and the way that Polanzak’s family grieved and continues to grieve, forms the heart of the book. Polanzak runs the event through a series of fictional permutations: sometimes we’re given what appears to be a straightforward account of his own life, while other chapters feature lightly fictionalized avatars of Polzanzak (all with first names roughly similar to his) proceeding through altered versions of his life: “Maddox’s dad combusted and vanished on a tennis court when he was hanging out with his girlfriend,” for instance. Polanzak and his doppelgängers soon become legion.

When writing about a trip overseas in the aftermath of his father’s death, Polanzak says that remembering it was “like piecing together a dream.” It’s a good description for this book as a whole: between the way that memories shift over time, our own tendencies to recall ourselves as better than we may have actually been, and the contrast between remembered events and documented ones, multiple versions of a particular life can play out at once. “I have read and believe that everyone in your dreams is yourself,” Polanzak writes later in the book, and the application of that phrase to the work as a whole seems clear.

For the most part, Polanzak circles back around to his relationship with his family and the grieving process. One section, entitled “Mini Lecture to My Students,” features a tangent about the writing abilities of David Foster Wallace. The invocation of Wallace seems odd at first; however, given Wallace’s own affinity for tennis and the shock that many felt at the news of his death, the sense of paralleling begins to increase.

Polanzak’s work is about memory, but it’s also about grief. One of the reasons that it–both our own and that of others–is so difficult to deal with is because there is no universal way to grieve. The way that two people deal with a very similar loss might be nearly identical, or it might be radically different; the words that comfort one might alienate the other. That panoply of reactions and reactions to reactions are what can be found within POP!, a kind of fictionalized meditation on the unspeakable.


“Susceptibility to error is a hazard inherent to Proxies,” Brian Blanchfield writes a prefatory note found in his book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. It establishes the structure of the book we’re about to read: when writing these essays, their author opted for “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.” Which means that the last twenty or so pages of the book include corrections or amendments. Some of them are largely factual: in “On House Sitting,” Blanchfield alludes to the work of “an artist I saw in a show with David Wojnorowicz;” in the “Correction” section, readers will learn the name of that artist (Mark Morrisroe) along with certain details about his life and art.

The story that the essays in Proxies gradually tell would be a compelling one in almost any method of telling. Blanchfield discusses his relationship to his family; to the aftermath of his stepfather’s death; to his complex and conflicted relationship with his mother, especially as it relates to his sexuality. But for a book that’s this intensely personal, the effect of finding out how Blanchfield remembers certain things can also be illuminating: it’s one thing to write about your life with this kind of candor, but another entierly to essentially provide readers with a map of how your mind works. And so we learn that he might have interpreted a passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek differently than she intended, or conflated two different versions of Depeche Mode’s song “Somebody.” These are intensely personal, intensely idiosyncratic things, and they leave the reader with a much clearer sense of Blanchfield than if he had simply written about being a fan of Dillard and Depeche Mode.

But that sense of Blanchfield that the reader may get has a larger purpose as well, and it’s one that resonates far beyond the already-compelling narrative that’s told through these essays. A third of the way through the book, in the essay “On Minutes,” Blanchfield writes a sentence that may cause any artists reading the book to shudder in empathy.

In November 2013, I deleted the words Paris Review and The Nation and Harper’s Magazine from my resumé, and added PowerPoint and Excel, to better the chances for the full-time support positions I applied for in Tucson.

That idea of identity, and the ways in which we may be forced to change it as circumstances merit, is one that recurs throughout the book. Blanchfield is a poet who, for economic reasons, has ended up working in non-academic jobs; in matters of sexuality, he isn’t out to most of his (very religiously conservative) family.

And so, for all that these essays are deftly written, frequently moving, and narratively compelling, their function serves an additional purpose. That essential map of how Blanchfield thinks is one part statement and one part confession: a kind of transmutation of memory, thought, and experience into words on a page.Its flaws don’t make this book stylized; instead, they make it that much more human.

Image: Gareth Spor

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