Francisco Goldman‘s new book, Say Her Name, covers real people and events—it’s about a novelist and journalist named Francisco Goldman, whose wife, Aura Estrada, died in a bodysurfing accident in 2007. Say Her Name is presented as a novel, though; the dust jacket calls it the “novel of Aura.” So what makes it fiction? “I didn’t do everything the character does,” Goldman told Publishers Weekly. “I didn’t quit my job. I didn’t live off Aura’s savings.” His answer to the question to the Paris Review is a little more complicated:
I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction. I am not claiming that there is not some other side to Aura that I missed. And there is the way I portray myself: a factual account of the kind of widower I was would give a completely different impression. I was a really superb widower.
It’s hard to tell, taking those quotes together, whether Goldman played loosely with the facts or is just such an honorable stickler for accuracy that he’s more comfortable calling his memories a fiction. The book itself suggests that something closer to the latter is going on. “She died because I was being myself, an eternal adolescent, a niñote. She died because, bursting with love, I decided to join her in the water. But all of that is also an evasion of the TRUTH, against which my diligently constructed narrative collapses like a huge wave of nothing…. The utter freakishness and meaningless of it—there is the TRUTH.” The all-caps fact of the matter, for Goldman, wouldn’t fill a page; he wants to find meaning in all this, which means getting into the imprecise business of memory and feeling.
Yet however justified Goldman is in calling Say Her Name a novel, it still feels like a memoir, both for practical reasons (the real names, the lack of an any-resemblance-to-persons-living-or-dead legal boilerplate that accompanies works of fiction) and structural ones—it has the arc of somebody acknowledging and then working through his grief. That disconnect has understandably frustrated critics. “The result is somehow the worst of two worlds, a memoir you can’t trust and a novel that lacks complexity and reach,” wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times. “[T]he incongruity distracts; questions disrupt the novel’s dream,” Kassten Alonso wrote in the Oregonian. “At what point does the fabrication of even picaresque or piddling details outweigh major plot drivers cemented in fact?”
I suspect Alonso means to say “picayune,” but “picaresque” is actually a handy word here, because it helps get at why it’s frustrating to think about Say Her Name as a novel, which has a little to do with what we expect out of memoirs too. The book is messy, alternating short chapters with long ones, heart-in-throat proclamations of grief with plainspoken details; it shifts back and forth in time, and its foreshadowing can be awkward. “Aura put her quilt away in the closet and came back into the bedroom and finished packing for her death,” he writes, and that “packing for her death” grates—it’s a needless bit of overdramatization. Every good book finds its own rhythm; Say Her Name starts out hyperventilating and has a hard time settling down.
So there’s something seductive, even calming about the book’s latter pages, which detail the circumstances of Aura’s death. There, things do settle down: Because it’s the climax the book has been working toward, there’s a clarity to those scenes, as if it were easier for Goldman to account for the moment of his heartbreak than to deal with everything that’s happened since. The 250 or so pages leading up to it are indeed a sort of picaresque novel—episodes about random meetings, romance, fights, family, and travel. The closing pages thrust its lead character into a reality that, however “constructed,” make it a different book entirely.
That makes Say Her Name a frustrating book, but it might have been more frustrating had Goldman gone ahead and called it a memoir, because the book doesn’t play by the rules that grief memoirs are expected to abide by. In books like Darin Strauss‘ Half a Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (and her forthcoming Blue Nights), all excellent memoirs, the tone is prim and straightforward—the raw, heaving emotion that accompanies losing someone isn’t addressed head-on so much as it erupts out of the Strunk & White precision of its sentences. Even in a book like Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye, which is longer and more digressive, thinking takes priority over feeling—in describing her search for the right ways to think about her mother’s death, she asks the reader to work to notice all the emotional flailing underneath.
Goldman is having none of that—he simply lets his feelings fly open, from moment to moment, unafraid to let himself come off as foolish or Aura appear childish. (One of the book’s narrative arcs is Aura’s growing as a writer, tracking her literary history from adolescent diary entries to more mature MFA work.) The disorder of much of the narrative doesn’t make it any more charming, a glimpse into the blasted mind of a grieving husband or some such—a messy story is a messy story, in fact or in fiction. But it does have the benefit of sincerity, however fictionalized, and the benefit of Goldman’s willingness to question how much of the grieving process has to do with all-caps truth and how much with the narratives we invent to get through it. Any book that wrestles with that question will be hard to categorize.