Memoirs allow a degree of creative freedom that is not as pervasive in the more formal styles like biography or autobiography. While this can result in a more interesting and accessible book there are also narrative choices that make memoirs harder to connect with as something ‘true’. In the iconic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig speaks of his past self as an entirely separate person, his experiences seeming like a kind of fiction to both the primary narrator and the reader. Much more recently (and with mixed reviews) Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas the author intentionally anonymized herself, making it difficult to attach her life to the idea of a real person. These narrative choices that are allowable in memoir can make these books far more compelling to read but they also have the tendency to move the books towards fiction in the mind of the reader.
The clear point of overlap between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Confessions of Sociopath is the altered mental states of the writer. Robert Pirsig suffers from schizophrenia and had undergone electro-shock treatment which has made his past self feel as if he is an entirely different person from the present self who narrates the book. The division between the present self who narrates and Phaedrus, the past self feels like something that would occur in a work of fiction. Phaedrus feels more like an imaginary friend than a real person. However, this is exactly how the author feels and this edging towards fiction is successful in giving some sense of the disconnect that is a part of Pirsig’s lived experience – something that is very far from what most readers would have experience with. M.E. Thomas also feels more like a character than a real person for most of Confessions of a Sociopath, her cold detached way of speaking is so distant from the way most readers think. This again is a product of a true neurological difference between readers and the writer but while Pirsig’s primary narrator is clearly himself there is no tie to the real world for M.E. Thomas.
In both cases the author seems to be aware of the way their narrative choices maybe interpreted, even by readers who know that they are reading non-fiction. The journey that Pirsig’s primary narrator is on is focused on reconciling himself with Phaedrus. The alienation is the entire point of the book and over the course of the memoir the gap and feeling of fiction is resolved. It is a clear demonstration of what is possible when authors are very intentional about any kind of writing choice. Additionally, the characters themselves are subservient to the true focus of the book which is the presentation of the philosophy of Quality. The reader’s investment in the primary narrator and Phaedrus keeps them reading through philosophical sections that might otherwise be boring or inaccessible. Aside from its value as a philosophical text (which I believe is significant) the construction of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is able to mobilize the narrative possibilities of memoir for maximum impact.
This is made particularly clear in contrast to Confessions of a Sociopath which, while interesting, is much less effective in its writing. M.E. Thomas only felt like a real person when I finished the book, set it down, and googled her. The internet identified her quite soon after the publication of the book and the ramification of that identification was what made her feel like a person. She had essentially challenged readers to find her and they did. Watching the sociopathic traits the book focused on playing out as her arrogance essentially ruined her life changed the book from a fiction about a corporate villain in the making to a memoir. However, this has nothing to do with the writing, the internet made this book what it was. Part of this may be that there was no philosophical themes underpinning the book so the entire focus was on the author’s altered mental state. It is a perspective on the world that is inherently difficult to connect with for the average person so perhaps the book was doomed to feel more like fiction.
Unconventional narrative choices can make a memoir immersive in a way that more traditional styles cannot. By anonymizing themselves or by attaching lived experience to various characters M.E. Thomas and Robert Pirsig are able to convey altered mental states with varying levels of success. However, as with most writing the success of these narrative styles is dependent on the author’s skill in executing it. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a beautiful and deeply effective demonstration of how the memoir genre can bring a subject to life in the minds of readers. Even reading it in 2020, long after the peak of its popularity it was immediately clear to me why this book is a classic. On the other hand Confessions of a Sociopath was interesting but only pulled together because the internet had identified the author, a clear failing of her choice to anonymize herself. Communicating the experience of living with an atypical mind is difficult but narrative choices must be well executed or else what is ostensibly fact feels very much like a fiction.