I have always disliked it when people use the phrase “my story,” as though their life was a grand narrative that they could unspool in one giant gust of telling, if only they could take a deep enough breath. It’s not the egalitarian idea that everyone has a story which bothers me, but the singularity of it, as though we all only have one. Most people’s lives are episodic and often highly compartmentalized, with many different threads unspooling simultaneously and in different directions.
As the title suggests, Edmund White’s My Lives is a multi-chambered thing, arranged as a kind of kinetic sculpture, with its many parts rotating and reflecting one another. The book’s formal originality extends to the subtitle, An autobiography, a phrase so eclipsed by the word memoir that it seems brazen in its stodginess. In White’s hands the word autobiography takes on new meaning. It’s not that he doesn’t confide and confess—he does—but White is not just a chronicler of himself. He is an automatic biographer, a sidewalk artist madly sketching everyone who walks by.
The book begins with a chapter called, “My Shrinks,” and ends with “My Friends.” In between come “My Mother,” “My Father,” “My Hustlers,” “My Women,” “My Europe,” “My Master,” “My Blonds,” and “My Genet.” Each chapter is its own snow globe, a world within a world. White writes, “I am a social sort who enjoys joking and having a good time. ‘Lightness’ is a virtue in my scheme of things, rare and highly desirable.”
One can’t read such a remark without thinking of an earlier chapter about his father, who owned his own company and kept his own hours. “He was a misanthrope who slept all day and stayed up all night, working at his blond mahogany desk under a big, tacky painting of ocean waves in moonlight,” he writes. The sensuous, spooky, vampiric atmosphere of White’s father—who always seemed there, but not there—contrasts with his mother, who was available to the point of suffocation, especially after his parents divorced. “We’d grown up in harem conditions, our ears filled nightly with the counsels and complaints of the Sultan’s former favorite.”
There is a lot of sex in the book. It is by turns anonymous, chaste, masochistic, tender, and sticky, often several at once, and often quite shocking in its vivid language and voracious unappeasability. But White never shocks gratuitously; he is always pushing toward a deeper comprehension of intimacy.
The repetition of the word “My” in each chapter highlights a possessive, domineering streak in White, but it is a self-mocking possessiveness—White is fond of juxtaposing his childhood fantasies of power with the reality of his helplessness. It would be too simple to say that this book charts his progress from helpless boy to famous author and intellectual (he is Jean Genet’s biographer), with an international cast of friends and admirers. It’s more that White slowly comes to understand how to make use of his helplessness; how to make his weakness a strength.
White never allows himself the lightness and ease of self-celebration. His method is to celebrate others. In the last chapter he wonders about the other ways he could have written his book—chapters about his teaching or his activism or the many famous people he has known. But a chapter called “My Celebrities,” would be redundant. Everyone who comes under White’s scrutinizing, mischievous eye is made his, not merely through association, but by the sheer force of will with which the act of sketching them celebrates them.
“What he needed was a strong, authoritative man,” he writes of a former lover. What he gets in White, instead, is, “a shifting, female mobile, every element turning at a different speed on its own micro-axis. I was so focused on him and eager to please him, so ready to echo every change in his half-formed, half-held opinions that I was designed to drive him even crazier. I was a mirror facing the mirror he’d become, repeating to infinity the slightest trick in the light.”
One moves through White’s book with the increasing sense that he is a good listener. Perhaps this is due to the solicitous, seductive mode with which he pursues his interpersonal relations. For White, the wooing never stops. But his agenda is never mercenary or materialist—he wants the pleasure of his subject’s company. Eventually it begins to feel as though he wants the pleasure of the reader’s company too. You feel as though you’ve been invited to a party where the conversation is witty, erudite, and sometimes, just a little mean. As White says at the end of his book, “Being predictable is the one unforgivable sin in a friend.”