Chris Benjamin Reviews Richard Lemm’s Imagined Truths
Richard Lemm has a nifty habit of telling a story, moving on then circling back and retelling it again with a bit more hindsight, sometimes doing this multiple times on a single subject. The result is a layered perspective: the naivete of an experience at a young age, seeing it again with a little knowledge (a dangerous thing), and again with the benefit of time and maturity. He is hard on himself throughout (sometimes too much so, making me want to say “Hey bud, you’re human.”) [I wouldn’t though, I don’t know him well enough to call him ‘Bud.’]
The result is a careful examination of a life, or certain key moments of it anyway, and also American history–particularly with respect to colonization, Jim Crow, the draft and the Vietnam war and other international armed conflicts. There’s just a splash of Canadian patriotism (the kind particular to those who adopt Canada as their homeland rather than being born to it–and perhaps especially those who fled the draft), and the importance of our tendency to define ourselves with some pride as “not American.”
The most insightful parts of Imagined Truths are Lemm’s reconsiderations of his own family myths of pioneering and settling and creating the “greatest nation on earth” by chopping down ancient trees. We all have our mythos, and critically examining them isn’t easy. I wish more settler folks would do it; I think it’s a really important way to understand our true origins, and how so many of our sacred cows are such piles of manure. Doing so helps us better understand not only the past, but also the present, our place in the modern world, and how we should conduct ourselves.
All that said, this is still too personal an account to be taken as any kind of morality tale. If anything, it’s a good model of how to examine one’s own life whenever one feels ready for such a thing.
As a reader, I just enjoyed being along for the ride. Lemm writes beautifully, and although navel gazing is impossible to avoid while writing memoir, the navel is in many world traditions the centre not only of the individual but also of the whole human universe. Lemm draws that connection in a profound way.