I’m fascinated by gimmick memoirs—what’s sometimes referred to as “schtick” lit. You know the kind of book I’m talking about: Julie & Julia, Nickel and Dimed, everything by Kevin Roose, or—at essay length—David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” I only recently discovered the endless catalog of A. J. Jacobs, whose schtick-y memoirs are each subtitled “One Man’s Humble Quest to [ ],” where the blank contains everything from “follow the Bible as literally as possible” to “become the smartest person in the world.” The best of these—and of this litany, I’d count Wallace’s essay as a particular success—transcend gimmick and rise to the status of art object. It’s a rocky and treacherous climb when working within such a maligned form, though. Perhaps it’s this difficulty, which arises out of the very pandering popularity of the schtick, that appeals to me.
The earliest draft of my forthcoming essay in the North American Review was written in the midst of a binge/purge cycle: I inhaled gimmick memoirs by day and drafted gimmick essays by night. Each essay was an attempt to find the right form for my own memoir, which covers a three-year span during my early twenties when I moved in with a guy, he killed himself, and I had to figure out how to move on. I began composing through lists: Here are all the objects I saved of his. Here are all the trails we used to hike. Here’s the bagful of clothes I kept. Here’s what I remember of his body—this last the provenance of the dismembered body parts of “Skinwalk: A Dissection.”
It’s a game that sustained me through the dark days of drafting. It’s a gimmick, sure, but it worked for me in large part because it’s how memory works: Most of us need a trigger, some orienting sensation to fling us back into the past. The felted stocking he gave me the year we celebrated Christmas with his parents. The program for a play we saw together. His monotone speaking from the cassette tape, him reciting lines from a play we were in together. The tobacco-scented candle that burned by our bedside, its scent now permeating only the box in which I keep these mementos.
Brooke Wonders is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Brevity, and The Collagist, among others. "Sinkwalk: A Dissection" appeared in the latest issue of the North American Review, Fall 299.4.
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator born and raised in New York City where she received her BFA in illustration from Parsons New School for Design. She now resides in sunny Los Angeles. Her works are inspired by the grace and elegance of women, mid-century design, french renaissance interiors, the colors olive green and mustard yellow, dreams, cypress trees, Greco-Roman art, and nostalgia. Her illustration accompanying this piece is titled "Rainy Reading."