Wednesday morning, I finished Mauve Desert [verdict: awesome; now I want to read it in French], and started Reading Lolita in Tehran. It seemed like a good palate cleanser between bouts of the avant-garde, and certainly appropriate to read on the fourth of July. I had also recently been reminded of it by M. Bérubé's summary of some of the controversy surrounding the book, and was intrigued enough to pull it off the shelf.
It was given to me as a gift some time ago (Christmas? My last birthday? I'm not sure.), and it seems, on the surface of it, like a book I'd like a lot. It's literary, feminist, and political, a memoir about the personal and political implications of the ways in which women can relate not just to each other, but also to books. But my disinterest in the book hinges on one single word in that sentence: memoir. It is not a scholarly text, and those who criticize it for its simplicity, readability, or careful plotting miss the point. This is pop politics, pop literature, pop feminism; it's not a carefully disguised attempt to provoke or calm anti-Iran sentiment, rather it is the story of one woman's life in Iran.
When memoirs succeed, it is because they describe lives that are unlike the readers', lives that intrigue, challenge, and surprise. A memoir should leave the reader with more questions than answers, more impetus than satisfaction. Nafisi's book is lovely, interesting, and it details a life full of literature, subversion, and unrest. It raises important questions, and whatever its agenda, I think that's valuable. That said, it has made me think more about the nature of the memoir than about anything else, and I can't help but wonder why a woman who has invested so much of herself into fiction has chosen to write not a novel, but a memoir.
She seems to be attempting to situate this book somewhere between fiction and a persuasive and personal essay, and I end up wishing she'd written either one or the other. Certainly I'm oversimplifying the above, and perhaps this is simply because I'm someone who doesn't understand the essential truthiness of the genre, but memoirs just don't do it for me. The exceptions to the rule are few, but they do, of course, include the book from which this post steals its title.