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A Funny Way to Write a Memoir

June 7, 2012

Benjamin Law, The Family Law, 2010

Benjamin Law’s book is a challenge to those who wish to categorise. It’s definitely not an autobiography in the sense of chronicling events over a straight time line. It is a series of self-contained essays, each on a particular aspect of the Law family, one after another in a seemingly random order. Is this a memoir?

Sven Birkerts has analysed many memoirs, and in a previous post I summarise his ideas thus: “Memoir portrays life as it is reconstituted by memory – the stories that give shape to the writer’s life. Memoir is far more selective than autobiography because it serves themes rather than events.”

If we accept this, The Family Law is a memoir. But it does feel as if the essays have been thrown up in the air and included in the book in the order in which they fell. That this works is due to the strength of the characters – Benjamin, his siblings, their father, and especially their mother, Jenny – and to Law’s ability to craft hilarious stories and write about tricky subjects with a light touch.

Each essay looks at the family from a slightly different angle so that, as I laughed at the goings-on, I got to know the family better (especially Jenny and Benjamin) and increasingly felt real affection for them. Law’s main theme is coming of age as gay and Asian on the Sunshine Coast, and his descriptions of this are both funny and moving. Other themes include adapting to a new country and culture, divorce and the often absent workaholic father, violence at school, attitudes to nursing homes, and the time many of his extended family were rounded up as illegal immigrants.

The focus is on telling good stories with humour, rather than on treating issues at depth, and this sometimes produces witty but glib statements such as: “Every marriage begins with passive aggression, but couples soon learn that being passive requires effort. It’s easier to be openly hostile.”

A funny way to write a memoir, but (mostly) it works. And I suspect that more substantial books from Benjamin Law may be on the way.

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