Last week we explored a bit of creative non-fiction in the form of memoir. This week, I’m gonna stick with CNF (it’s an industry term, don’t worry about it) but focus on essays. Specifically, Augusten Burroughs’ latest project: a collection entitled This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike (2012).
Yes, that is the title. Yes, it’s missing an Oxford comma. And if my eye-rolling and sighs are imperceptible in those last two sentences, just know once and for all that this review is not going to end well. That’s right my children, I will not be recommending this book.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that at the very beginning of the post. What reason do you now have for reading to the end? Shoot. Well, I shall continue regardless, and I do encourage you to follow along, even if only out of pity. I’m 80% sure you won’t regret it.
Before we get into This Is How, I want to talk about about my relationship with Burroughs prior to this most recent endeavor. I first encountered Augusten (né Christopher Robison) via the lens of Ryan Murphy in his film adaptation of Burroughs’ first book, a memoir, Running With Scissors (2006). Have you seen this movie? This kid’s life is CRAZY! I had no idea the story was true. Eventually I saw the book on a housemate’s shelf and discovered that Running With Scissors was, indeed, an autobiographical account. I don’t even know where to start to explain how screwed up Augusten’s childhood was; you just have to read it. (Yes, I do recommend that book.)
Cut to last year. I’m perusing the newly boyfriend-ed Mr. Smith’s bookshelf, and see not one but two titles by Burroughs nestled somewhere in between A Farewell to Arms and Live From New York. They are: Dry, and Magical Thinking. Dry (2003) is the book Burroughs wrote after Running With Scissors. It’s also a memoir, introducing us to Augusten’s adult life as a New York City-based ad writer; and, an alcoholic. The book chronicles his slow descent into almost total self-destruction, his experiences in rehab, and his attempts to maintain sobriety as he returns to ‘the real world.’ Somehow, I found it to be more sad than Running With Scissors. Perhaps because Augusten is no longer the innocent, betrayed child but rather, now, the perpetrator of his own suffering.
One year after the publication of Dry, Burroughs put out Magical Thinking: True Stories. (This is the other “Augusten” book that I found on Mr. Smith’s shelf.) It’s a collection of autobiographical essays, full of the crazy stories we’ve come to expect from Burroughs; stories about psychotic psychologists, random sexual encounters, alcoholic stupors, and dying friends. I enjoyed it more than Dry, because within the pages are glimpses of hope that the guy is actually starting to learn something.
Between Magical Thinking and This Is How, Burroughs also published Possible Side Effects, A Wolf at the Table, You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas, and Take Five: Four Favorite Essays Plus One Never-Been-Seen Essay. I have not read any of these, however, and know nothing about them, so we’ll just move on to the book I’m actually reviewing here.
This Is How, which came out earlier this year, is a collection of opinion essays. He uses personal stories to illustrate his points but it is not, strictly speaking, a memoir. Basically, it’s a 230-page editorial on life. Ambitious much? Chapter titles include everything from “How to Ride an Elevator” to “How to Lose Someone You Love,” with a little bit of “How to End Your Life” and “How to Be Thin” thrown in between for good measure.
The titles are interesting; but as I closed the book for the final time I realized: that’s all they are. My impression is that this book is clever sensationalism–not surprising, coming from an ad writer–accompanied by little substance. Sure, Burroughs has his opinions, and seems to be very passionate about them, but they’re either hackneyed or so deeply biased that they’re beyond arguable–certainly beyond being taken as advice, as the book’s title suggests they should be and the author’s tone confirms.
Finishing this book, it struck me that perhaps I’ve only enjoyed reading Burroughs in the past because the story of his life is so bizarre–stranger than fiction, as they say. And now, with This Is How, it’s been revealed–at least to me–that maybe the events he described in his past books bolstered his writing into a level of intrigue it might not have on its own.
It’s not that he’s a bad writer. He’s pretty good, actually. Plus, working on a book-length project myself, I feel bad criticizing him at all. But I can’t help but think, after reading This Is How, that he might be turning into a David Sedaris wannabe. Or maybe he always was. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Who doesn’t want to be David Sedaris?)
In my final analysis, I have to say that This Is How is a fairly mediocre work. Burroughs has some good thoughts, even moments of true inspiration, but he’s so stubborn about his opinions that no levity gets in, little vision gets out, and you know you just have to take him with a grain of salt. And, it took me forever to read the damn thing, which is never a good sign.
Thanks anyway, Augusten.