Where Fiction and Memoir Met Years Ago
A Contrary Lost Classic renewed by David M. Smith

Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time doesn’t fit easily into this magazine’s series, for although it is indeed a “classic,” it’s definitely not “lost." For David Foster Wallace, it’s “arguably the best literary memoir of the twentieth century and […] one of the books that first made poor old yours truly want to be a writer.” The New York Times called it “the sort of book that is passed along like a trade secret” among aspiring young writers. Although not lost, it deserves to be found more often.
        In my own third, or fourth, or fifth reading of Stop-Time—I can’t remember—I was reminded of a somewhat morbid brain teaser I read a long time ago, somewhere in the back pages of my childhood. It concerned a pastor who nodded off during the hymns one Sunday morning, having a nightmare that was so intense he died instantly of fright. The funny thing about this is, of course, how would one know the nature of his dream if he never woke up to relate it. This story could only be true if no one ever knew about it; in the very act of telling it or even conceiving it, one dooms it to falsehood. The story belongs irretrievably to the domain of fiction.
        Like that old story (or is it a joke?), Stop-Time occupies a weird place somewhere between factual and fictional reality. At one point, Conroy relates the fine mess his stepfather created when he invited another woman to live in the home. This was done in secret while Frank’s mother was away in Europe. The other woman, to the stepfather's horror, turned out to be neurotic and refused to leave. “His motives were undoubtedly numerous,” Conroy writes, but "as it turned out, his motives were of no importance whatsoever. Who needs to know, about the man falling down the elevator shaft, that he thought he was stepping into the car, or that his original plan was to get off at the tenth floor?”
Just as fictional omniscience would be necessary to make sense of the dead pastor story, Conroy signals a similar principle at play in Stop-Time, despite its pretensions as a memoir, as a straightforward remembered record. Near the beginning of the book, Conroy writes, “My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually. I begin to believe that chronological time is an illusion, and that some other principle organizes experience.… I almost gratefully accept the delusion that I’ve lived another life, remote from me now, and completely forgotten about it.” 
Here we can see Conroy wanting to place his past in the same space as our pastor’s untimely demise, that is, in a space of oblivion. If successful, this is a move which enables the kind of omniscience that can only be provided, in the end, by fiction. This is not a false omniscience, but a fictional one, which is neatly borne by these lines by Wallace Stevens which Conroy uses as his epigraph:
If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,
A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

David M. Smith is an American writer living in Norway.

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Frank Conroy
Lost Classic