Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin: When did we start calling memoir “literary fiction,” and why? The roman à clef predates these contemporary writers and their lightly fictionalized works of autobiography by generations, but the 20th-century approach was comparatively roundabout. Though it’s not difficult to see through the veneer of fiction thinly spread over the surface of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (a delightfully vindictive attack on the author’s cheating ex-wife), the novel doesn’t own up to its status as autobiography. In it, Bellow strikes a tender balance: His characters differ enough from their models to afford him plausible deniability, but they are recognizable enough to function as lampoons. Philip Roth and Norman Mailer clung to their own versions of this literary charade, dutifully changing their characters’ names if not their identifying features. (How many reiterations of the same self-righteous Jewish man from New Jersey has Roth, a self-righteous Jewish man from New Jersey, cooked up in his fecund career?)
But these exercises in dissemblance have given way to Knausgaard’s six-volume leviathan of candid self-involvement—and now authors like Heti openly admit that they are not quite novelists, at least in the conventional sense. Her How Should a Person Be?, which contains passages copied verbatim from the author’s e-mail exchanges, is billed as a “novel from life.” Contemporary memoirist “fiction” flirts openly with reality, incorporating actual e-mails or letters and commenting unabashedly on the terms of its own composition. This more recent tradition has perhaps less to do with Bellow and Roth than another, lesser-known product of the 1960s: Linda Rosenkrantz’s “novel” Talk (1968), a compilation of transcribed conversations between three denizens of the New York art world that was recently reissued by New York Review Books.
Talk is set in the Long Island beach town of East Hampton in the summer of ’65, and its protagonists are the pseudonymous Marsha, Emily, and Vincent, a writer, an actress, and an artist, respectively. The conversations featured in the book are real, though Rosenkrantz has declined to reveal Emily’s and Vincent’s true identities The work’s genesis is described in the introduction by the writer Stephen Koch: Rosenkrantz, who figures as Marsha, recorded her friends’ conversations and spent the next couple of years transcribing them, condensing them, and breaking them up into chapters with titles like “Emily’s Problems Are Discussed on the Beach” and “Emily, Marsha and Vincent Discuss Orgies.” Between the first chapter, “Emily Helps Marsha Pack for the Summer,” and the last, “Marsha Unpacks from the Summer,” the three friends explore the subjects so typical of ’60s-era conversation: sex, love, art, and acid trips.
Aside from the allusions to Clement Greenberg and a few invocations of “my analyst”—a figure as central to New Yorkers in the ’60s as the omnipresent therapist is to Manhattanites today—the book rarely feels dated: Its protagonists possess the same ironic sensibilities as the white, upper-middle-class, relentlessly self-flagellating characters who populate Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls or Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor. “She has a lot of the qualities of bright people, she’s sort of cynical and bored, negative, quick,” Emily says of Marsha’s sister. One could be forgiven for imagining that she is describing the exaggerated pessimism of the disaffected twentysomethings sipping microbrews in Brooklyn today. Talk’s talk—at times neurotic and self-effacing, at times devastatingly sincere—reminds us that wry self-awareness and anxious fragility are hardly a millennial invention.