Lust & Wonder: A Memoir
Lust and Wonder, Augusten Burroughs’ latest memoir (Where does he get all the life experiences to fill so very many memoirs?) begins with a bit of a ba-boom.
Burroughs asks a friend for the email address of an author whose work he admires and who once dated said friend. He then sends what we used to call a mash note to the writer, along with a digital picture of himself. The note starts out gushing about the guy’s book and ends like this: “If you’re interested, write me back. I’m attaching a photo I took of myself just five minutes ago. And yeah, I do own shirts.”
Here’s what follows:
“He replied almost instantly, like he’d been expecting to hear from me. ‘I’d love to meet you,’ he wrote, ‘You look great!’
“The swiftness and brevity of his reply caused me to instantly resent him. I felt deprived of suspense and the luxurious anxiety of wondering if I’d made a fool of myself by attaching a shirtless photo with my stalker note.
“Now he was the dish of wrapped peppermints next to the cash register that I didn’t want because they were free.”
Seinfeldian—if such a comparison may still be used, 20-odd years later.
The reader sighs aloud at the tiresome reasons for the now-almost-certain rejection of what might have been a perfectly good writer, and a published one at that, most especially since the use of the exclamation point (“You look great!”) goes unmentioned as the only real reason to ever reject anyone on the basis of an email.
And the reader begins to question just how sustainably lusty Lust and Wonder will actually turn out to be.
In other words: has Augusten Burroughs (after Running With Scissors, Dry, Magical Thinking, and a few others, as well as this present memoir) at last reached the bottom of his anecdotal barrel?
Yes. And no.
In Lust and Wonder, Burroughs somehow pretty much manages to avoid writing about either of his titular topics, right up until the very last sentences of the book, in which he reveals:
“I placed my hand against the side of his precious, electric face and felt the stubble beneath my fingers. I was overwhelmed with the lust and wonder of it all.”
Which seems a clear literary case of “too little, too late.”
And that last sentence or two aside, a good deal more of the book seems focused upon Burroughs’ near obsession with buying and owning jewels and gems and other shiny rocks, his past need for quantities of alcohol in his daily diet, his ongoing dedication to the process of psychotherapy, and the quality of the cheeseburgers and steaks on offer at any number of New York eateries than it does with either a consideration of the awe and wonder of it all, or the scald of lust that is common to our race.
Thus the book might well have been more honestly named Gluttony and Self-Absorption, as these two rather banal qualities are a great deal more on hand in these pages than either wonder or lust. And more’s the pity.
In fact, both lust and wonder seem to have been rather ironically selected for the title; it’s as if, to put it another way, they both describe the negative space between the actual aspects of the author’s life, rather than refer to actual aspects themselves.
This is partially because our author, in rather exhaustive detail, recounts the fact that he had difficulty experiencing anything like lust while in at least one of his long-term relationships.
As he puts it:
“We moved to the bed. I wanted nothing more than to turn onto my side and curl up.
“’Are you okay?’ he asked.
“I said, ‘Yeah.’
“I was not okay. The mere touch of his hand filled me with unaccountable fury instead of passion.”
Burroughs’ seemingly lacks the ability to experience anything like a state of wonder during the period of his life that he is writing about here. Anxiety, yes. Insecurity, most definitely. And suspicion, fear, confusion, delusion, and deep, deep anger—on and on.
As Burroughs writes:
“Four generations of manic depression on my mother’s side of the family. Three of autism on my father’s. Drug addict uncles, a pyromaniac cousin, a couple of schizophrenics and suicides, several flesh-and-blood geniuses, and a pecan farmer. You cannot mix those raw ingredients together and then stick them inside my mother to simmer for nine months and expect something normal to come out. It’s a wonder I wasn’t born with a set of horns.”
Aside from all this, Mr. Burroughs, who, in Lust and Wonder recounts his leap from writing advertising copy to churning out memoirs and a single novel by years ago surrendering himself to a marathon writing session during which his first book (the novel, called Sellevision) burst forth, rather like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, still writes at a gallop. So much so that the reader has trouble keeping up with his frantic pace. The book, like any number of the cheeseburgers described within its pages, seems to be more honestly ingested than read.
And if the thing’s a meal, then there are a few very tasty bites.
Like this one:
“I had an imaginary friend as a child. I wonder now if I only believed it to be a friend and that what I formed was actually an imaginary enemy. A compressed orb of fear and reflex, positioned just behind my eyes in the center of my forehead. So that it would have front-row center seats for everything that would ever happen to me in life and could preside in cautionary judgment and alarm. ‘You don’t need anyone else. You have me,’ it says.”
In its dark little heart, Lust and Wonder is nothing more than a rom-com, one in which our hero, when he finally hooks up with the right guy, discovers not only love, but lust.
Or as he puts it: “Then it was like, ‘Oh, so this is sex.’”
Which is all well and good. But as jumpy/manic as this memoir is, and as wildly romantic as it ends up being, after chapters and chapters of sad love tales and limp dicks, the whole of it feels a little padded, as if, after so many harrowing true life tales, Augusten Burroughs, in telling us at last of how he and his agent ended up living in a lovely weekend house in Connecticut that is apparently crammed with the gems and jewels that he has collected over the years, has exhausted all that there is to say about that lively life of his.
And, oh, God, let’s hope so.
And let’s nod our approval at this, his latest volume of wit and raw memory, that we enjoyed enough to be glad to have read it.
As long has he promises not to write another.