Nonfiction: Writing as Drag: Alexander Chee’s Essays Consider the Novelist’s Craft

HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL
Essays
By Alexander Chee
280 pp. Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Paper, $15.99.

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” is a disarming title for an essay collection by Alexander Chee, given that he’s fresh from the success of a novel that on the face of it was anything but autobiographical. That book, the justly celebrated epic “The Queen of the Night” (2016), was an operatic drama that followed a fictional 19th-century soprano as she rises to fame in Paris and navigates Second Empire intrigue on a scale to make Victor Hugo proud. What could be farther from Chee’s own life? But one of the things you learn in this collection is that, for most writers, “novels are accidents at their start,” an answer to questions the author never knew to ask. In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page, and not only in the way that Gustave Flaubert was Madame Bovary or Henry James the prepubescent heroine of “What Maisie Knew.” In a revealing essay called “Girl,” Chee recalls his first time in drag, on Halloween in the Castro in 1990. The cosmetic transformation allowed him to collapse his identities as a gay man, a Korean-American and a New England transplant into a pleasing totality: “This beauty I find when I put on drag, then: It is made up of these talismans of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face.”

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If writing, too, is a form of drag for Chee, it is also an act of mystic invocation and transference. In an essay recounting his career as a professional Tarot reader, he asks of the cards what readers ask of stories: “the feeling of something coming true.” Still, few books fit the bill of “autobiographical novel” better than this collection, which is arranged in rough coming-of-age chronology, from the author’s sexual awakening as an exchange student in Mexico (“a summer of wanting impossible things”) to the death of his father at 43, following a car accident, when Chee was 15; his beginnings as a writer at Wesleyan University, where he studied under Annie Dillard; his tenure in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS crisis; the publication of his (explicitly autobiographical) first novel, “Edinburgh,” in 2001; and his maturity as a reader, writer and instructor who longs, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, to lead his students “to another world, one where people value writing and art more than war.” The book ends with the beautiful sentiment, cribbed from an email Chee wrote his students after the election of Donald Trump, that “a novel, should it survive, protects what a missile can’t.”

Chee leavens his heaviest topics — the decimation of the gay community in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the repressed memory of sexual abuse that inspired “Edinburgh” — with charming episodes like his stint as a waiter at William and Pat Buckley’s Park Avenue maisonette, a job that prompted a crisis of conscience given Buckley’s infamous proposal to brand AIDS patients on their wrists and buttocks. (On another catering assignment, this one at the Buckleys’ home in Connecticut, he glimpses Buckley heading to the pool to skinny-dip with a male staffer.) There is also an account of his worshipful, nigh-religious encounter with Chloë Sevigny in the elevator of a building both are subletting; a chummy reminiscence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he attends against his better judgment only to wind up a convert who readily defends M.F.A. programs against their critics (“It is not an escape from the real world, to my mind, but a confrontation with it”); and an essay about planting a rose garden outside his Brooklyn apartment that affords him the opportunity to discuss the writing process under the guise of horticulturist.

Other essays have the kind of grandiose titles you’d expect from a more traditional book on craft: “The Writing Life,” “The Autobiography of My Novel,” “On Becoming an American Writer.” And, really, why write a book about writing if you can’t occasionally hold forth with such injunctions as “Think of a dream with the outer surface of a storm”? Yet even at his most mystical, Chee is generous; these pieces are personal, never pedagogical. They bespeak an unguarded sincerity and curiosity. Chee is refreshingly open about his sometimes liberating, sometimes claustrophobic sense of exceptionality. As a child he reads X-Men comics and wishes for psychic powers; as an adult he finds his ambitious first efforts as a writer at odds with prevailing literary trends. Throughout, Chee endeavors to catch himself at a distance and reckon, ever humble and bracingly honest, with the slippery terrain of memory, identity and love. “We are not what we think we are,” he writes. “The stories we tell of ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like the ocean. A mask afloat on the open sea.”

Of the stories Chee tells, one deserves special attention: “After Peter,” a memorialization of a lover and mentor who died of AIDS in 1994. Chee chronicles their involvement with activist organizations like Act Up/SF and Queer Nation in the long years before the advent of protease inhibitors. “Why am I telling this story?” he asks rhetorically. “The men I wanted to follow into the future are dead. … I feel I owe them my survival.” He reminds us that whomever a writer pictures as his audience, he is also writing into absence, standing in testimony for the sake of the dead. Like most of the essays here, “After Peter” pulses with urgency, one piece from a life in restless motion. It is not necessary to agree that “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” is itself a kind of novel in order to appreciate that Chee has written a moving and personal tribute to impermanence, a wise and transgressive meditation on a life lived both because of and in spite of America, a place where, he writes, “you are allowed to speak the truth as long as nothing changes.”

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