Thursday, June 1, 2006

My Lives: An Autobiography

Posted on Thu, Jun 1, 2006 at 4:00 AM

My Lives: An Autobiography
Publishing House: Ecco Press
WorkNameSort: My Lives: An Autobiography
Memory has always been Edmund White's muse. By the time he published his classic coming-out tale, A Boy's Own Story (1982), White was 42 years old and gay liberation was upon us. The story's poignancy arose not out of its immediacy, but the sense that retrieving the experience would never redeem it. Since then, the Princeton writing professor has turned out a series of autobiographical novels, memorializing the utter devastation of the past three decades in gay life. The apex of this development is certainly My Lives, White's elegant and revealing new memoir, which reveals that it is not Proust but Jean Genet who is White's biggest influence.

Readers familiar with White's early fiction might be a little astonished to find out just how much he toned down his life before turning it into fiction. By the time he was 16, the precociously sexual White writes in My Lives, he had had some 100 lovers, and was far from satisfied. My Lives recounts much of it in great detail. As eye-popping as the sex is ' a 'dungeonâ?� scene takes the cake ' the book never becomes a paean to decadence. My Lives proceeds in long set-piece chapters with titles like 'My Mother,â?� 'My Europe,â?� 'My Masterâ?� and 'My Genet.â?� This structure allows White the length he needs to stretch out and dramatize the reaching back through time that memoir requires. What emerges is a beautiful onionskin of a book ' one we can peel and peel and always find more layers. At the center of it lies not a core of regret or judgment, or even vanity, but a longing so powerful it wants to defy mortality.

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