In her new book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, memoirist Melissa Febos handily recuperates the art of writing the self from some of the most common biases against it: that the memoir is a lesser form than the novel. That trauma narratives should somehow be over—we’ve had our fill ... Febos rejects these belittlements with eloquence ... In its hybridity, this book formalizes one of Febos’s central tenets within it: that there is no disentangling craft from the personal, just as there is no disentangling the personal from the political. It’s a memoir of a life indelibly changed by literary practice and the rigorous integrity demanded of it ... Febos is an essayist of grace and terrific precision, her sentences meticulously sculpted, her paragraphs shapely and compressed ... what’s fresh, of course, is Febos herself, remapping this terrain through her context, her life and writing, her unusual combinations of sources (William H. Gass meets Elissa Washuta, for example), her painstaking exactitude and unflappable sureness—and the new readers she will reach with all of this.
A lazy categorization would describe Body Work as 'part memoir, part craft book, part literary treatise.' But Febos’s work defies this kind of segmentation. Each of her books contains multitudes, seamlessly coalesced into a single truth-seeking missile. Her trademark magic is in the melding ... Febos offers a compelling rebuttal of the accusation that a memoir is simply a diary in print ... asks the fundamental questions with which our literature, and our culture, are currently grappling. Which version of the story is yours, which is mine, which is true? Is there room in our American house for more than one story, or more than one version of the same story?
Although the essays in what is arguably [Febos'] latest act of service to that questionable project are all personal narratives themselves (as opposed to straight-up craft essays with clear dos and don'ts for the aspiring or practicing writer), they also provide practical and philosophical arguments for the expansiveness that such narratives allow and for their power in the world ... Rather than believing the narrative that stories of trauma are dull or overdone or whiney or gauche, Febos encourages her readers to tell their stories, to write them, for themselves or others. In this way, Body Work, is in itself an example of the strength of personal narrative; it's also an argument for how such narratives inevitably create space for community as well as a freer self.