In Not a Place on Any Map, an experimental memoir published in 2016 by Vine Leaves Press, Alexis Paige recounts her life up to the present through a series of what might be termed, depending on whom you ask, prose vignettes, flash lyric essays, or short pieces of nonfiction: brief, stand-alone scenes that focus on significant and often traumatic moments set in the many places she has lived. Any element that might be considered artificial or secondary (exposition, plot development, characterization) has been minimized or discarded; to steal a sentence from Reality Hunger that David Shields himself steals from Nietzsche, Paige’s formal goal seems to be “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book.” Unfortunately, the result often feels hollow, less like a fully-realized project than a sheaf of notes.
The cycle of five pieces that depict the years Paige lives in San Francisco exemplifies this. We have known since the introductory essay that her spiral into substance abuse and one-night stands picks up in San Francisco: that city will be “all [hers] to fuck up,” she prophecies. However, when we arrive in San Francisco, the fucking-up seems in short supply. “San Francisco Muse, 2002” strikes a happy note (she’s with a guy who makes her “laugh for what seemed like forever”), while “Soliloquy, Tiburon Ferry, San Francisco Bay, 2001” and “Vermont Letter, 1998–2001” mix yearning and nostalgia. Only “Not-Quite One-Night Stand in San Francisco” somewhat describes what she means by “fuck up.” She has fallen from living with her boyfriend to living with “a friend from the bar,” and from buying drugs from “a petite white woman…with fake tits” to buying the cocaine she needs “to get out of bed” from a “black man, as big as a nightclub bouncer.”
Nonetheless, the conclusion to this cycle, “Skyline, Rapt, 2004,” acts as though it wraps up a longer, more harrowing work. The scene places Paige on the heights, that ancient space of epiphany, and in a modern variation on the millennia-old scene, lays the polluted city at her feet. She “[climbs] to the top of Russian Hill,” and as she “[looks] down upon the dark bay and North Beach,” she hears, not the still, small voice of some divinity, but the voice of her therapist, advising her “to practice breathing.” So she practices breathing, and her epiphany duly arrives: “To be so excruciatingly alive is what hurts, the mystery of inertia, and the waiting around to get better. I think of Seurat and the way you have to pull back to see the shape of the thing. I am a million dots of light and dark shaping, pulling back in surprise on my body, tight as a fist.”
This is the kind of “insight” that (to invoke Shields again) “you [would have had] to read seven hundred pages to get” were Paige working in a more traditional form. Yet because this realization derives from three years of experiences she has muted, it does not resonate. How has Paige been “excruciatingly alive”? How has being alive “hurt”? What does she mean by “the mystery of inertia”? And how has she been “waiting around to get better”? Narrative development, for all its padding, would have at least provided “the shape of the thing.” As it is, the scene feels unearned.
A similar sense pervades the cycle that treats the time she spends in jail after causing a three-car pile-up while driving under the influence, but here what elsewhere might be a minor problem becomes genuinely problematic.
Paige has written about this experience before in a more traditional form. “The Right to Remain,” a full-length essay first published in The Rumpus, focuses on the hours Paige spends in jail immediately afterward, examining the ways, both large and small, that her racial and economic privilege distinguishes her from the other “mostly black and brown” inmates. She is “so white” because she wants the other inmates to quiet down instead of protest when the guards tell them the blankets are “at laundry,” and she is bailed out the next morning instead of being taken to “county” because, as someone she identifies as “Big Bird” points out, she “[has] people.”
When Paige treats similar material in the shorter forms of Not a Place on Any Map, however, she replaces these complicated interactions with meditations on the special emotional bond they forged. At one point, she remembers the women she met in jail as her “mislaid sisters”; at another, when she develops the habit of crying in the middle of the night for reasons not entirely clear to herself, she wonders if she is “thinking of Yolanda….Or the other inmates.” In both cases, we are forced to infer the existence of relationships we have barely seen develop and of people we have scarcely met, and we are left asking questions that range from basic to complicated. Who is Yolanda, besides being Paige’s “Bunkie”? Who are the “other inmates,” these “sisters” of hers? And how has she earned this “sisterhood” despite the “having-people” racial and economic differences that separate her from them? Without any specific support, these proclamations seem at worst a presumptuous recapitulation of uncomplicated notions of race relations, and at best a provoking I-know-something-you-don’t-know response to the fraught question of the constraints on interracial friendship in a systemically-racist society.
All told, Not a Place on Any Map demonstrates certain risks inherent in the form it essays. Many serious readers find recapitulations of nineteenth-century techniques played out and untrue; most readers no longer want to read “seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights [a] book was written.” But reading Not a Place on Any Map, I wonder if cutting everything but those “handful of insights,” as Paige seems to do, actually solves the problem. Perhaps literature, like life, needs some boredom to develop. In any case, this particular form does not seem entirely suited to capture a life as complex as Paige’s, and I, for one, leave the book wishing she had treated her material as she had in “The Right to Remain,” and hoping that the memoir-in-progress mentioned on her website either takes a similar approach, or develops the genre in a different direction.
Not a Place on Any Map / Alexis Paige / Vine Leaves Press / 5 December 2016
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.