I, who have no need of any media bounty, remain afraid. I have been everywhere. I know all. Am all, I am the creator. Perhaps for that very reason I am afraid of what I have let loose, of what I have created.
Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray--a name like a character in a YA novel, don't you think--has had many lives, has been known by many other names. She has been an acclaimed actress and socialite, and I guess in two totally different circumstances, a nun. Now she's elderly and living outside Sydney, under the care of her daughter Hilda and her old friend Patrick White, who is a writer of some kind. She is writing her memoirs, which she is entrusting to Patrick as editor, although she is not done with living yet, and frequently escapes the weary eye of her daughter to go roaming around their suburb.
Memoirs of Many in One is unique among Patrick White novels. For one, there's the postmodernist/metafictional elements of it, what with White writing himself in as a character--something that dozens of White's contemporaries did all the time but which seems, somehow, stylistically unusual. Even the cover puts Alex's name at the top with "edited by Patrick White" beneath (though the relative font size gives the game away). There's the first person narration, which I don't think White does in any of his other books. And there's the fact that it's under 200 pages. All in all, Memoirs of the Many in One gives the suggestion that it is a kind of literary joke, a setup without a punchline or vice versa. And it is pretty funny, especially in surface-level ways that White's other novels never really bother with. It's funny when, for example, the increasingly senile Alex insinuates her way into a neighbor's house where she wets the bed, or when she picks up a homeless man from the nearby park, calling him "The Mystic," and locks him in Hilda's crawlspace with a tinned meat pie.
But Memoirs of Many in One also explores several of White's common themes. Like The Eye of the Storm, it's a book about aging: the fantastic and outrageous Alex is increasingly hamstrung by the effects of aging, both in a mental sense and in the sense that she is confined to the dullness and conformity of the Sydney suburb that her daughter embodies. "No one is old," she tells a policeman who arrests her for stealing a lipstick and a handbag: "It's only their bodies. And then not always." And, like The Twyborn Affair, it's a novel about the many identities we have within us: "I could have done almost anything if I had an identity, like the furniture inside this house or the dahlias on the other side of the window. But I hadn't found the frame which fitted me." Memoirs of Many in One brings these themes together in a way that suggests to me a shocking theory about senility: as we age, senility is brought on by the fact that we are no longer able to keep up the pretense that we are a single person with a single identity. We fall apart because we always have been in pieces.
Still, the flashbacks are the weakest part of Memoirs. Alex relives her acting days, her socialite days, her two different experiences as a nun (What's up with that? Am I not reading it right? What's the point?), but none of these has the space or development to make it ring true. Much better are the contemporary sections, which are some of White's best explorations of the contrast between the immensity and multiplicity of the human soul and the dull-eyed stupidity of bourgeois suburban living. Like Alex herself, it has its bits of majesty, but it doesn't really hang together.