Cursed as I am to notice and investigate every passing reference to addiction that enters my visual frame, I inevitably found my way to The Daily Beast-Newsweek’s current excerpt from a new memoir of crack addiction by New York literary agent Bill Clegg, called Ninety Days: a Memoir of Recovery. Here’s a sample:
Suddenly a few thousand dollars seems within reach, and I can feel that old burn, that hibernating want, come awake. I imagine the relief that first hit will deliver and I’m suddenly up off the couch and pacing. No no no, I chant. No f–king way. That craving, once it begins, is almost impossible to reverse. What my addict mind imagines, my addict body chases. It’s like Bruce Banner as he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk. Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage.
Having read a lot of addiction memoirs for professional reasons, I tend to check mental boxes when I read this kind of thing. Breathy, pacy present tense immediacy — the literary quality that some critics will say sets it apart from those other, boring recovery memoirs — check. Twelve-step disease model, addict-identity rhetoric, check. Victorian monster-metamorphosis cut with contempo-retro pop culture reference — nice touch, and check. The point is not that Clegg’s writing is hackneyed (though it presents some worrying symptoms), but that addiction stories, like instances of most other genres, are assembled from a set of recognizable conventions.
When you’re reading nonfiction, you’re not supposed to recognize these as conventions, but, if anything, as qualities that inhere in the experience being described. If an addict in the grips of compulsion describes feeling overtaken by a beast that is in him but not of him, that’s because that is what compulsion feels like (possibly for unfake-ably neurochemical reasons), not because that’s the sign that has evolved to describe compulsion in writing. If as a professional reader I recoil from descriptions of nonfiction as direct reality, on the other hand, I recognize that my habits of classification have taken me too far in the other direction. I tend to perceive these patterns now as more writerly than real. Of course, they can be both. Like the anhedonic tweaker whose dopamine receptors have gone out of business for good, I may have permanently lost the ability to enjoy an addiction memoir innocently.
A more productive way of putting this is that I now read all addiction stories, to some degree, as meta-narratives, or as commentaries on the narrative form itself. Metanarrative is a term — to borrow, for authority’s sake, the inimitable language of European narratology — describing “forms of self-reflexive narration in which aspects of narration are addressed in the narratorial discourse, i.e. narrative utterances about narrative.”
By this definition, you can’t just “read” a narrative as self-reflexive; you have to identify some way in which it is signaling reflexivity. But what counts as reflexivity is not precisely definable.