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Metaddiction Narratives, or Aids to Appreciating the Formulaic

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Bill Clegg-- Still Recovering

Cursed as I am to notice and investigate every passing reference to addiction that enters my visual frame, I inevitably found my way to The Daily Beast-Newsweek’s current excerpt from a new memoir of crack addiction by New York literary agent Bill Clegg, called Ninety Days: a Memoir of Recovery. Here’s a sample:

Suddenly a few thousand dollars seems within reach, and I can feel that old burn, that hibernating want, come awake. I imagine the relief that first hit will deliver and I’m suddenly up off the couch and pacing. No no no, I chant. No f–king way. That craving, once it begins, is almost impossible to reverse. What my addict mind imagines, my addict body chases. It’s like Bruce Banner as he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk. Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage.

Having read a lot of addiction memoirs for professional reasons, I tend to check mental boxes when I read this kind of thing. Breathy, pacy present tense immediacy — the literary quality that some critics will say sets it apart from those other, boring recovery memoirs — check. Twelve-step disease model, addict-identity rhetoric, check. Victorian monster-metamorphosis cut with contempo-retro pop culture reference — nice touch, and check. The point is not that Clegg’s writing is hackneyed (though it presents some worrying symptoms), but that addiction stories, like instances of most other genres, are assembled from a set of recognizable conventions.

When you’re reading nonfiction, you’re not supposed to recognize these as conventions, but, if anything, as qualities that inhere in the experience being described. If an addict in the grips of compulsion describes feeling overtaken by a beast that is in him but not of him, that’s because that is what compulsion feels like (possibly for unfake-ably neurochemical reasons), not because that’s the sign that has evolved to describe compulsion in writing. If as a professional reader I recoil from descriptions of nonfiction as direct reality, on the other hand, I recognize that my habits of classification have taken me too far in the other direction. I tend to perceive these patterns now as more writerly than real. Of course, they can be both. Like the anhedonic tweaker whose dopamine receptors have gone out of business for good, I may have permanently lost the ability to enjoy an addiction memoir innocently.


The Bondage of Self

A more productive way of putting this is that I now read all addiction stories, to some degree, as meta-narratives, or as commentaries on the narrative form itself. Metanarrative is a term — to borrow, for authority’s sake, the inimitable language of European narratology — describing “forms of self-reflexive narration in which aspects of narration are addressed in the narratorial discourse, i.e. narrative utterances about narrative.”

By this definition, you can’t just “read” a narrative as self-reflexive; you have to identify some way in which it is signaling reflexivity. But what counts as reflexivity is not precisely definable. For me, the process of reading many instances of the same genre, for the purposes of understanding that genre, creates the perception of conversation between each instance and a standard template. That’s happening on my side as a reader, I’ll admit. But, addiction narrators, especially in books striving for literary significance, are very aware of the genre and the need to transcend it one way or another. In fact, metanarration is pervasive even in mutual-aid settings, as when a narrator says, “OK, here’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you how wonderful everything is now. Well, guess what,…” This move has itself become a convention of recovery storytelling, asserting realism, identification, and one-day-at-a-time wisdom. In these functions, “I didn’t live happily ever after” has lost much of its “meta” quality, insofar as it doesn’t pull listeners or readers out of the narrative frame but actually confirms their expectations for what such stories should do.

I’m interested in a trickier phenomenon, in fictions which use the conventions established in addiction nonfiction for their own purposes. This category elides the distinction between metanarration, which comments on the process of narrative construction, and metafiction, which comments on the fictionality of the narrative. Put it this way: they perform metafictionality by transparently borrowing conventions belonging to nonfictional addiction narrative. They often do so because they want to redeploy addiction conventions for some other purpose. But in doing so, they also implicitly comment on those conventions.


The Beasts Within

Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 temperance tale, “The Black Cat,” about a drinker who begins by abusing his beloved cat and ends by doing worse to his wife. As David Reynolds has shown, Poe creates one of his patented horrible effects, and meditates on the power of morally destructive impulses, by using conventions of the sensational temperance tales that were especially popular in this precise era.

It is tempting, as Reynolds does, to quote the passages on alcohol, “for what disease is like Alcohol!” Or to focus on Poe’s psychological thesis statement, on “perverseness” — the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself” — as the deeper mystery that intemperance merely unlocks. But I am intrigued by the narrator’s brief reference to narrative construction: “I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts—and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect.” This assertion mimics the justification of the sensational drinking narrative, in the appeal to unreserved confession. And it draws on temperance logic in holding that bad leads to worse fatalistically rather than by choice. I note also, though, the obviously self-contradictory nature of this apology. Cause and effect are preposterous, and yet the narrator has established causative principles, in the power of alcohol to give free reign to the “primary faculty” of perverseness. And his minutely detailed memories and command of convoluted sentences in relating them creates a perception of storytelling mastery, rather than stunned recollection. In other words, it allows us to see that the temperance story is a tightly woven tale calculated for specific effects, and not a straight account of lamentable facts.

Jump ahead 170 years to postmodern pioneer Robert Coover’s “Going for a Beer,” published in the New Yorker last year. Coover’s brief third-person tale describes the life of a man as a disjointed, recursive series of unplanned binges, sexual encounters, marriages, babies, and variously violent separations. E.g.,

He passes the old neighborhood bar and is tempted but decides that he has had enough trouble for one lifetime and is about to walk on when he is stopped by that hulk who beat him up and who now gives him a cigar because he’s just become a father and drags him into the bar for a celebratory drink, or, rather, several, he has lost count.

The story both parodies and repurposes alcoholism narrative, as a sequence of repetitive and fragmented memories. One senses the larger point is that everyone’s life is like that of a philandering drunk. Memories are hazy and repetitive and tend to collapse into indistinct repeating patterns, rather than linear sequences of discrete events. Motives are dispensed with altogether, rather than reconstructed after the fact (as they are in Robert Frosts’s “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence,” in the most mis-read poem of all time). Life is the pursuit of simple reward incentives (avoid pain, seek pleasure), with arbitrary content provided by the social context (in this case neighborhood bars and the courtship ritual of the drunken hook-up). “So he has another beer, wondering where he’s supposed to live now, and realizing—it’s the bartender who so remarks while offering him another on the house—that life is short and brutal and before he knows it he’ll be dead. He’s right.” It puts me in mind of T.S. Eliot’s review of Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood, when he wrote of Barnes’s miserable, repetitive drunks that they reveal the “human misery and bondage which is universal.”


Plotting Their Recovery Memoirs

Poe’s and Coover’s stories, by using the conventions of alcoholism narrative, show that these conventions are not bound to alcoholism. If they can be extracted to serve other ends, we are invited to consider what ends they really serve in addiction stories, apart from or instead of describing what addiction is like. Coover’s piece in particular suggests something that critics of the brain disease model of addiction often say: that the neuroscience does not in fact distinguish addiction from the kinds of desire-reward-compulsion dynamics that we do not want to include in the category — whether medically supervised physical dependence on opioid painkillers, or the spate of “we actually in scientific fact are addicted to our lovers/iPhones/ice cream cones” stories that routinely appear in the news.

The problem puts me in the mind of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. James claimed he could infer mental structures from religious narratives, as long as he differentiated between authentically disruptive experiences and “second-hand” salvation talk, or “cant.” To do so, of course, required acts of interpretation. And James saw certain drunkard’s conversion stories as especially convincing, in effect guaranteeing the religious genre’s claim to reality. It seems reflexivity is hard to escape in recovery narrative, even down at its roots.

To return to Bill Clegg’s new memoir. Tales of addiction, for all their ostensibly outre content, seem especially formulaic. Even crack memoirist (crack the drug, as well as crack the old-fashioned superlative) David Carr hinted at this problem two years ago, in his sympathetic but disappointed review of Clegg’s first memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. “As the author of my own memoir about crack addiction, I don’t pretend to know how to avoid the numbing narrative aspects of drug use,” Carr admits about the repetitive quality of addiction, or “the getting and using of the same substance over and over until death, jail or recovery intervenes.” But, he adds later, “as his book progresses, Clegg himself seems bored by even the most piquant episodes.” This new memoir is about relapsing, and the “ninety days” of the title refers to a milestone of sobriety valued in the meeting-group tradition, one that Clegg struggles to reach. That’s a convention of sorts, too, and an example of how twelve-step culture continues to shape not only recovery but addiction itself, insofar as it affects the course of the relapses that the scientists tell us are inherent to the disease.



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