A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters
A Life Discarded is the fragmented story of an unremarkable, anonymous life. The mere fact that an author deemed this saga worth telling is itself curious. In Cambridge, England, biographer Alexander Masters came upon 148 diaries abandoned in a dumpster amongst other trash. Soon began his multi-year project to piece together the life whose intimate documentation had otherwise been headed for a landfill.
The resulting book features deliberate meditation on the biographical approach one employs when writing about a non-celebrity. Rather than digging for the origins of an accomplished, influential public figure, it is the unremarkable plainness of the anonymous diarist’s life that pulls Masters with its mystique. Especially baffling is the diary collection’s alarming granularity; word-count calculations show that the diarist wrote an average of 90 minutes daily, for decades.
Such obsessive documentation of an humdrum life arguably suggests some degree of pathology, and additional symptoms do follow. At age 20, the diarist stabs walls, destroys furniture, and later develops an irrational fear of food entering the lungs that makes each meal a careful, two-hour procedure. Readers may experience voyeuristic guilt as this circus of erratic behavior progresses: Perhaps this life is more “sad” than it is a basis for entertainment. It is odd that Masters maintains denial by omission that psychological issues could be the diarist’s driving force. It is not until page 116 that a consultant investigator suggests an asylum-worthy craziness could be at play.
After all the time spent journaling and eating, what does the diarist spend the day doing? Not a whole lot. He/she meditates extensively on glorious aspirations, though the exact artistic ambitions remain unclear, nor is much progress on a supposed “grand project” ever made. Otherwise, it’s ordinary commentary on education, employment, neuroses, the piano, family conflict, and self-worth (or lack thereof).
Arguably, when the subject of nonfiction is a non-public figure, the criticism involved shouldn’t be too harsh. Masters acknowledges that the diarist never asked for public attention, and thus doesn’t deserve the sharp scrutiny that comes with it. But for those afraid this book may descend into shameless hagiography, fear not. Among the adjectives Masters uses to describe the diarist are neurotic, lazy, delusional, arrogant, and easily distracted. Yet elsewhere, he identifies ways she is funny, clever, kind, and generous. Only the full breadth of this story can demonstrate how these disparate attributes could be reconciled within a single identity.
An atypical work like this runs the risk that the biographer runs wild, self-seduced by his own unchecked speculation. Given that this anonymous diarist has virtually no other publicly available documents against which to verify the diary’s assertions, there are few limits to what Masters can claim on the basis of a single, biased journal. Masters consults a penmanship graphologist, who draws conclusions about the diarist’s psyche and motives based solely on the size and slope of the journal’s words. Much of it plays like a tarot card reading, and you may wonder if you’ve been duped into dialing a literary 1-900 number. Thankfully, some moments of restraint do occur. Masters pulls back the reins when his mathematical attempt to calculate the diarist’s height (based on the angled slope of the writing in the journals and the diarist’s stated habit of writing in bed) suggests a 22-foot-tall giant.
For all its apparent tedium, and some investigative inquiries that lead to dead ends, the final 20% of A Life Discarded is nothing short of fascinating. (To explain why would ruin this book’s central surprises.) Masters would have been wise to hint at the eventual thrilling destination—to dangle some kind of ambiguous carrot that motivates your slog through the initial banality—but he doesn’t. Instead, the first few sections of the book generate a fully avoidable anxiety that the investigation may lead nowhere worthwhile. Masters claims that he presents all his investigations, hypotheses and eventual revelations in the same chronological way that he experienced them. But, considering the way the ending sequence packs such a massive shocking punch, it’s hard not to suspect that he deliberately deceived us by cherry-picking diary excerpts ambiguous enough to conceal crucial facts. In the book’s acknowledgements, he thanks his editor for “cunning suggestions of structure and plot.” Curious.
Still, if Masters is guilty of building suspense artificially, he can’t be blamed too harshly. It’s no easy task to make captivating the story of a neurotic, unaccomplished nobody. The promised land to which this story eventually leads is nonetheless hugely satisfying, and the atonement Masters discovers when making sense of this almost-discarded life most definitely validates the entire journey.