A Memoir of No One in Particular by Daniel Harris

(Basic Books)

According to the laws of karma, Daniel Harris should receive scathing reviews of his latest effort, "A Memoir of No One in Particular"; since 1980, he’s savagely skewered hundreds of aspiring and accomplished gay wordsmiths with his written witticisms.

According to the laws of literature, though, Harris deserves better.

His self-described “anti-memoir” is, in fact, self-aggrandizing, a narcissistic rendering of a very specific middle-aged man. Yet he manages to manipulate his solipsistic outlook into a vanity mirror for the reader that reflects not only homosexuality, startling and validating, but humanness as well.

The fact that the mirror buckles with funhouse distortions can be off-putting, especially for the particularly priggish who believe “farting, pooping and peeing,” among other topics, to be taboo. Anyone squeamish about scab eating and toenail biting would do well to invest in another book.

People with disdain for prolixity, too, should look elsewhere for entertainment: A typical Harrisian sentence contains 50+ words. And for readers unfamiliar with, say, “basilisks,” “daguerreotypes” and “panegyrics,” keeping a dictionary at hand might be a good plan.

But Harris does emphasize the fun in funhouse, stretching his, and his readers’, reflections to obscene proportions. Self-deprecating quips and cheerfully quoted criticisms illuminate the power of debasing oneself with humor—of making a potential enemy laugh. He tears at clichés with his frank, if self-conscious, confessions, fearlessly admitting to fashion idiocy, a convoluted oratory block and a need to play voyeur to his own sexual escapades.

This type of irreverent irony reverberates throughout "Memoir." For instance, the muscular Harris wears women’s lycra while thickening his gams at the gym. And while purporting to be an intellectual, he confesses a penchant for his most vile body odors. He’s also an elitist with an egalitarian mindset. Within these oxymoronic confessions lie anecdotes—like the somewhat dubious retelling of a batch of construction workers who mistakenly yell “show us your boobies!” at the large, sunbathing author—that work in Harris’s favor; yet his tendency to humiliate himself for a chuckle eventually tarnishes bits of the self-portrait he’s trying to frame.

Harris retains objectivity in his autobiography by employing the stance of “bespectacled primatologist studying the curious antics of a creature in captivity.” But this tactic prevents all but the tiniest inkling of cathartic awakening, for either the reader or the author. And, caught as he is in his intellect, Harris must resort to describing the grungier aspects of living in order to evoke a response. Whether disgusted or delirious, though, the reader will most likely push onward through the impeccably crafted pages, looking for that glimmer of emotive connectivity that will allow for a sympathetic bond with the memoirist. Sadly, plain old empathy may have to suffice.

- James Beach


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