Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Know Your Contemporary Authors- Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs

About a decade ago, there was a great surge in the genre of memoirs in American publishing.  I have no idea why it happened at that time, but it did.  From my point of view it was a phenomenon that just emerged at random.  I paid very close attention to the trend because when I was young I wanted to be Spalding Gray when I grew up (except hopefully with a happier ending.)  We will be covering several contemporary memoirists in this series because it is a form which had unexpected vitality breathed into it recently.  Also because I happen to like a good deal of the contemporary memoirists (and have very strong opinions about some others.  Or, in the case of James Frey, contemporary "memoirists.")  

Although Augusten Burroughs often (but not always) has a streak of humor running through his work, his work walks us through some severely difficult experiences.  Burroughs has had what I think he aptly describes as "a horrible life."  He no longer seems to be in the midst of the horrible portion of his life now, but in his work he plunges you into the starkly hideous truth.  He is relentless for the sake of that truth.  They are remarkably brave and generous books.

I would venture a guess that Running With Scissors is probably his best known work, especially as it has been made into a major Hollywood motion picture.  I don't want to give away too much, but there is a horrific train wreck of permissiveness and a domino effect of psychological collapse.  His next book, Dry, dealt with Burroughs as an adult and an alcoholic, as well as the death of his former lover.  He has a novel, Sellevision, which I've not read yet, but I hear is excellent (and in pre-production for a film adaptation.)  He also has some collections of essays available.  And a Christmas book.

I'm really afraid of distilling the rich experience of his books into "the meaning of" and pat answers.  Part of what is so valuable about his work is a hyper-focused look at collapse, disintegration, and "man's inhumanity to man," as well as the variety of responses and effects on those who suffer through these experiences.  I think these are themes crucial to humankind. 

Case in point, one of the more remarkable and harrowing reading experiences I've had with a contemporary author is his memoir A Wolf At The Table.  The book deals with his relationship with his father and it explores some of the darkest material I've ever read.  Also one of the better books I've ever read.  It's not fun or funny or easy at all (which, unfortunately, may keep it from ever being read as widely as the others.  To say that's unfortunate would be a vast understatement), but anyone who has ever experienced the harshness of desiring love from someone who will not and does not give it to them (which I imagine happens to everyone to some degree) should read this.  It is also a book about the extreme evil, the complete inhumanity that some humans inflict upon others.  In this case, it's the nightmare of that person being the author's father.  You can and should hear Burroughs talk about it and read a bit from it here.  I highly highly recommend you listen to it.

Burroughs expresses a major theme of his work, specifically in reference to Dry:
"Nobody has to be stuck with the life they have if they don't like it. You can make very dramatic changes and it can all turn out ok. I also hope the book shows how the results are always better when you stop skating across the surface of your life and really go inside and dig around for the good stuff."


  1. I listened to a major portion of Burroughs comments...pretty heavy stuff. Interesting. But heavy.