Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True,” Wayne Booth’s “types of literary interest,” and the fictional “memoir” form

Having within the month finished another huge book, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and feeling nostalgia for the slow but steady pace of reading a long book and the satisfaction that comes from completing it and having a certain vision of the whole, I picked up next Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, lured by the philosophical glamour of the title as much as by the heft of the book itself.  It wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.  The idea of a bare minimum of knowledge that could be absolutely counted on, I figured (that title again) was something I or anyone might want to know about.  In its neatness, it reminded me of Paul Simon’s lyric from his Graceland album, which I dearly love:  “I know what I know/I’ll sing what I’ve said/We come and we go/It’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head….”  As we’re all aware who have even a smattering of Greek philosophy, Socrates is responsible for the notion that the wise man knows only that he knows nothing, and any time someone claims to know even a smidgen or a smattering, I want “to know” about it.

And as I said, I enjoyed the book, but it wasn’t what I expected, and the philosophical statement as such came only at the very end of the book, and didn’t really satisfy my curiosity, though it did represent fairly adequately the growth of knowledge in the primary narrator.  It’s a strangely uneven book, one which is too long perhaps, and which perhaps could’ve used another editing than the one it received, but I remain unsure of those conclusions because after all, I had been interested enough to follow it cover to cover, and to complain of the length or editing once one has “eaten the sweet” is perhaps a bit precious.  I Know This Much Is True uses matter-of-fact, work-a-day, rarely technical language thoughout most of the book except for the short philosophical lyrical passage at the very end which somehow seems insufficient for all the weight of the story as it’s told.  There is an interior story as well, the written narrative of the main character and primary narrator Domenick Birdsey’s grandfather Domenico Tempesta, full of grandeur and bombast and thoroughly unlikeable even to the primary narrator himself.  But it is by way of the past and this narrative, as well as through contemporary events and psychological analysis, that Domenick, the “sane” brother, learns to understand his twin brother Thomas (afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia), his family, and even his own place in the world.  And it is because of the closeness with which this narrative sticks to plain, ordinary, everyday (if sometimes harsh and brutal) events that I happened to recall what the renowned scholar Wayne Booth said about “types of literary interest (and distance)” in his famous work The Rhetoric of Fiction, and to see how it might be applied to this novel.

Wayne Booth said:  “The values which interest us, and which are thus available for technical manipulation in fiction, may be roughly divided into three kinds.  (1)  Intellectual or cognitive:  We have, or can be made to have, strong intellectual curiosity about ‘the facts,’ the true interpretation, the true reasons, the true origins, the true motives, or the truth about life itself.  (2)  Qualitative:  We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire to see any pattern or form completed, or to experience a further development of qualities of any kind.  We might call this kind ‘aesthetic,’ if to do so did not suggest that a literary form using this interest was necessarily of more artistic value than one based on other interests.  (3)  Practical:  We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire for the success or failure of those we love or hate, admire or detest; or we can be made to hope for or fear a change in the quality of a character.  We might call this kind ‘human,’ if to do so did not imply that 1 and 2 were somehow less than human.  This hope or fear may be for an intellectual change in a character or for a change in his fortune; one finds this practical aspect even in the most uncompromising novel of ideas that might seem to fall entirely under 1.  Our desire may, second, be for a change of quality in a character; one finds this practical aspect even in the purely ‘aesthetic’ novel of sensibility that might seem to fall under entirely under 2.  Finally, our desire may for for a moral change in a character, or for a change in his fortune–that is, we can be made to hope for or to fear particular moral choices and their results” (p. 125).

In Lamb’s work, Booth’s categories 1 and 3 are strongly marked, category 2 not so much:  the burden of carrying the category 1 rhetoric falls fairly strongly on the interior narration of the grandfather’s handed-down manuscript, in which our curiosity and interest in “the facts” of the family history are satisfied.  Booth’s category 3 rhetoric is developed in the main narrative, which I would refer to as the “external frame story” were it not for the fact that it is much more voluminous than the average frame, yet that is in effect what it is.  Perhaps for those who have read or will read this book, the best way to understand the way in which the category 2 rhetoric is less significant herein is to place this book side by side for comparison and contrast purposes with some of the heavily “aesthetic” novels of Virginia Woolf, like The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway, in which the completion of pattern and form is of a sublimated, almost entirely thematic kind.

Finally, the shape that comes most strongly to mind in reference to this work is that of a memoir (albeit a fictional one) as I have come to understand it from the website of Richard Gilbert, an expert in the form.  The three elements which Gilbert mentions as essential to the development of the memoir in his reviews, interviews, and guest posts from other memoir writers and teachers are:  structure, scene, and persona.  This work of fiction reads very much like a memoir in its development because of the strength of the persona ( or since it is a work of fiction actually, the voice) of Domenick Birdsey and the tight structuring of scenes with flashbacks closely tied to each cautious step forward in the contemporary day action.  As well, as has been commented on in Gilbert’s site, a memoir is different from an autobiography in that an autobiography attempts a chronological development, whereas a memoir attempts a more “thematic” development.  In I Know This Much Is True, the overall theme is one of Domenick’s attempting to overcome the fear and anger he feels at his twin brother Thomas’s insanity.  That he manages to deal with his demons is clear from that last, atypical, lyrical passage, which I give here not only to prove my point, but because it will not be necessary to issue a “spoiler alert” for types 1 and 3 of literary interest, and I think it will encourage readers to pick up the book to see “how” the novel develops:  “I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family’s, and my country’s past, holding in my hands these truths:  that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things./This much, at least, I’ve figured out.  I know this much is true.”

The beauty of that final passage points up the only real quarrel I have with this book, which is that I wish it had more such fine lyrical passages in the rest of the novel.  Putting this one in at the ultimate position does give it major emphasis, but I would feel more comfortable with the book as a whole if it were all of a piece, and did not leave that final summation to do for all the narration what needs to be done in the way of ending things with the correct emphasis.  Be that as it may, this is a good novel, and should be read by anyone who has an interest in the topics of mental illness, twins, the history of family generations, period history, feminism, in short, it covers a lot of ground.  And for its good qualities, I would recommend making it your next long read.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to “Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True,” Wayne Booth’s “types of literary interest,” and the fictional “memoir” form

  1. Richard Gilbert

    How interesting, Victoria. Yet another book to add to my endless reading list!


    • Yes, I thought so often of things you’d said about the memoir as I read that I at one point made the mistake when discussing “I Know This Much Is True” with my brother–who’s also read it–of actually speaking of the book as Lamb’s memoir, because it seemed so close and personal, while still enclosing a contrary experience of having achieved distance. It seems so simple in places, so ordinary, and yet….I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.


  2. I am sold and will add this to my list for when the good times start to roll….or in other words some sort of wage slip. I am liking this memoir scene you are getting me into.

    Books with depth make me happy and are also offensive weapons for when philistines are encountered.


    • Here’s a thought: I don’t know what the libraries on your side of the pond are like, but you may be able to get both “Infinite Jest” and “I Know This Much Is True” on an online service provided by your library, since both have been out for at least fifteen years. I’m getting a bit annoyed at times with my libraries’ online service (I have books I’m reading from two different libraries) because a lot of what they offer is true philistinism at its worst, but they do have some good things worth reading. Right now I’m reading some Edwidge Danticat, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Smiley, and George Meredith. As another person with vision problems (I’m extremely near-sighted and am being treated for glaucoma), I can tell you that it’s easier to read a classic or book of contemporary quality online–provided you keep your eyes moistened with over-the-counter natural tears and keep blinking–than it is to attempt the often tiny or stylized print of the same titles in print form. The lighting and size of type is better, for one thing. And here at least, you don’t have to be near the library physically to use the online service, all you have to do is at some point determined by the individual library, go there and get a physical card. The library I read the most from was willing to give me two years’ worth of online reading time before I need to go in person for a card. It’s not in line with my political views about print vs. online (I’m a Luddite and prefer good print), but it does save my eyes and a lot of trees, so I’m half-way coming round.
      Maybe you can do the same? Just a thought.


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