Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction, but I don’t buy it. In fact, whenever we hear a really amazing true story, our response is invariably, “Wow, that sounds like the plot of a novel!” (And it usually doesn’t take long for someone to turn it into one.) It’s the mark of a true storyteller to have the ability to make the mundane captivating (I’ll never write the story of my life unless I can figure out a way to make surfing the internet sound really, really exciting). Unsurprisingly, fiction writers often make the best autobiographers. Practiced at the craft of shaping a narrative, they’re able to look at the jumble of their own lives and turn it into a story. Here are 6 recent autobiographies by fiction writers that are just as compelling as their novels.
Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart
If you’ve read Shteyngart, you know what to expect from his novels: a cast of colorful characters bouncing off one another in a world exaggerated to all-too-believable absurdity (see: Super Sad True Love Story; the appropriately titled Absurdistan). His recent memoir, which tells of his upbringing as an awkward, sickly child of immigrants who seem befuddled by their weird son (the title comes from his boyhood nickname…thanks, dad!) and his eventual success as an acclaimed author who perhaps still feels inadequate in his father’s eyes. With set pieces that include a late-in-childhood circumcision, you know the author’s holding nothing back.
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
This one feels a little like cheating, because Gilbert’s very successful career as a novelist seems to have begun after she’d already received a National Book Award nomination for her phenomenally successful, Julia-Roberts-film-spawning memoir Eat, Pray, Love. But little did you know that before she wowed readers and critics alike with last year’s The Signature of All Things, she published another novel—2000’s Stern Men. Regardless, there’s no denying the fact that Eat, Pray, Love is an intensely compelling story, and Gilbert’s search for physical, spiritual, and emotional fulfillment across three continents has likely unofficially sponsored more than one midlife crisis.
A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade, by Kevin Brockmeier
Kevin Brockmeier’s best-known work of fiction, A Brief History of the Dead, posits a version of the afterlife populated by spirits who disappear one by one when there is no longer anyone living who remembers them. Appropriately enough, his new memoir is focused on a period everyone would probably rather forget. Is there another time of life more regrettable than seventh grade? I would argue no; it’s the perfect storm of mid-pubertal awkwardness and emotional upheaval. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, written like fiction in the present tense, feels like a painfully true-to-life novel of the worst year of our middle-school lives.
Flyover Lives, by Diane Johnson
Considering her reputation as the world-traveling author of satirical cosmopolitan relationship novels like Le Divorce, you might be surprised to learn of Diane Johnson’s rather mundane upbringing in landlocked, rural Illinois (represent!). Of course, in the history of every American family, no matter how staid, there must be those distant persons who took a look at wherever there were and thought, “time to go somewhere new.” With the precise characterization and scene-setting of her fiction, Johnson traces her personal and family history and tries to figure out where exactly she came from.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
The only Ann Patchett novel I’ve read is Bel Canto, her best-known work, a tense dramatic thriller about a group of South American terrorists who botch a presidential assassination and end up living for months with a group of upperclass hostages. Her recent essay collection, including pieces published in Vogue, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, is more concerned with the day to day—her writing process, her experiences on book tours and subsequent decision to open a bookstore, unhappy marriage, divorce, happy marriage. Somehow, it’s no less engaging.
Tibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins
OK, so technically this one doesn’t come out for a month or so, but I’m still putting it here, because you know the twisted mind behind Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is going to have one hell of a life story.
What’s your favorite memoir by a novelist?