Keith Richards ended up calling his memoir Life, not, as had been planned, My Life, the more conventional choice. Almost any memoir ever written could be called My Life. It’s what Bill Clinton called his own memoir. For Clinton it was a defensive, even a defiant, title, but then, memoirs are defensive by nature. To exist, they must justify their existence. Uniqueness—the “my” in “my life”—is an important condition: without it none but the first-ever memoir would have to exist. And the suspicion of insufficient uniqueness is one great nullifier of memoir: this is the problem when memoir subgenres (abuse memoirs, addiction memoirs, conversion memoirs, travel memoirs) promise to convey shock or pathos or virtue, but get their ingredients from a cake mix. The recent crop of purloined, plagiarized, and manufactured memoirs—James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, for example—unsettled readers not because some sacred line dividing fact and fiction had been crossed, but instead, I think, because they suggested we might actually be running out of interesting lives. Aspiring memoirists may just have to start writing fiction: though there the competition to make something new and good is, if anything, even more keen. The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time. Thus the hilariously nonchalant title, which, shorn of the expected first-person possessive, would suggest that Richards’s life is more or less the one we all experience.
more from Dan Chiasson at the NYRB here.