Memoir. The genre name alone can be enough to strike terror in the heart of readers and writers alike. For such a seemingly benign proposition—the recollection of personal experience—there’s an unnerving danger to both sides of the equation that has caused publishers and MFA workshops to cloak the genre in wartime euphemisms like “personal essay” and the skin-crawling “creative nonfiction.” On the one hand, candor, or at least the conceit of bald truth, makes us uneasy. It’s easier to take narrative in the hypothetical pill of fiction, allowing us a measured degree of intimacy with the characters and absolution from the opinions we may formulate. Yet, on the other hand, we are voyeurs. We relish the opportunity to anonymously submerge ourselves in the lives of others, rifle through their dresser drawers and try on the stuff that fits.
For this latter reason, the genre often relies on the extremes of human experience: tragedy, transgression, or at least the brand of honesty that borders on exhibitionism. In one of Hudson author Chloe Caldwell’s first essays in her collection Legs Get Led Astray, her bookish hipster brother finds her copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, that notoriously fabricated best-selling memoir of drug addiction, and tells her to hide her books before his friends come over. It’s a window into the challenge that Caldwell faces attempting to capture her experience without pandering to the sensational or boring her reader with solipsistic minutiae. “I had a great childhood,” she says on the second page, subverting the subtext that so many memoirists rely on, and in the next breath articulates the more complicated one that her book faces: “Sometimes I think I wanted my life to be more tragic than it was.”
The balance she ends up striking relies first on the “sincere sensation” (to borrow a key phrase from one of the essays) of an uninhibited reveal but then rewards the reader with access to something deeper and ultimately universal. It’s hard not to flip directly to an essay titled “Masturbating with Moxie” or “The Penis Game” out of sheer titillation, but while the former treats the reader to the expected sexual confessions—quite literally a list of unusual and important masturbation scenarios—the latter turns out to be a hilarious and disarming conversation about anatomy with a 3-year-old cousin.
Legs Get Led Astray is largely a chronicle of sex, drugs and existential wandering across the 20-something landscapes of Brooklyn, Seattle and Caldwell’s childhood home upstate, earning her the “indie darling” tag from a few reviewers. And there is a bit of that blasé, “Yeah, I used to shoplift, blow heroin, have orgies and listen to Antony and the Johnsons . . . no big deal” spirit to many of the essays, yet her best writing emerges from, or perhaps despite, the hit parade of sexual trysts, parties and urban debauchery that serve as furniture. “Yes to Carrots” deftly distills the complicated emotional psychology of a lovers’ triangle down to the mundane symbol of a bottle of expensive lotion, which Caldwell covets just like the deeper connection to a man that only his proper girlfriend can afford. “Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable (156 India Street)” similarly uses a decrepit—literally falling down—Brooklyn apartment building to illustrate both the freedom of youthful abandon and lessons in pain that accompany it. “But this was life,” she writes in another essay. “And I preferred hurt to ignorance.”
Much of this hurt comes through relationships won and lost, echoed in the books (Bukowski, Nabokov, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Lethem, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul) and music (Elliot Smith, Okkervil River, Bon Iver, the Eels) that adorn each episode, yet Caldwell’s most moving essays regard the younger men in her life, the children she spent years babysitting whose juvenile struggles force the author into a position of uncomfortable authority and responsibility.
In essays such as “You Had Me,” “Underground” and “The Shit You Say,” Caldwell uses anaphora to drive home the repetitive, habitual nature of human interactions, unquenched desires and repeated mistakes. It results in a list-y form of memoir that can feel a bit copied-down from shorthand journal entries or customized for the at-a-glance, blog-savvy set. But the scattershot style almost ensures that a reader will find some fleeting anecdote probing and resonant, be it a midnight dip in the East River, smoking pot out of a seltzer can, or the guilt and coping that comes after a friend’s suicide. Ultimately, it’s not Caldwell’s specific experiences that generate this resonance in us, it’s her precision of observing herself that allow us to turn the same microscope on ourselves. The same might be said of all effective memoir.
“On Snooping” is classic confessional, on-page therapy linking Caldwell’s years of reading her mother’s and lover’s diaries to her own efforts to connect and make sense of life through the act of writing. The only variable that separates the diarist from the memoirist, it seems, is the desired readership. While the diarist’s work is reclusive, the memoirist is accused of being an exhibitionist, yet Caldwell speaks to a latent desire implicit in the very act of writing when she confesses, “A small truth in all of this is that I’ve always wanted someone to invade my privacy.”