Review: A Life Discarded, Alexander Masters

A Life Discarded, Alexander Masters
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A Life Discarded, Alexander Masters

A Life Discarded
Alexander Masters
4th Estate, $35

What is it we're looking for when we read a biography? Perhaps at some level we're seeking insight into how someone who might be a bit like us has achieved something extraordinary. At the very least we might reasonably expect the subject to have distinguished themselves in one field or other.

The subject of A Life Discarded, initially referred to as "Not-Mary", not only hasn't distinguished herself in any field, she's uninspiring in almost every way. Friendless, TV-obsessed, and frequently fired from her various menial jobs, she often comes across as lazy, melancholic, histrionic, spiteful and just plain vain.

In other words Not-Mary probably is a bit like us, and possibly worse.

In 2001 the writer Alexander Masters was gifted Not-Mary's 148 diaries (which span 50 years and up to 2500 words per day) by two professor friends who discovered them while fossicking in a Cambridge skip. Masters already had credentials as a biographer, having written an award winning book about his itinerant friend Stuart Shorter, and a second biography about the reclusive math prodigy Simon Phillips Norton.

It took Masters 14 years to write A Life Discarded, and his approach to the enterprise seems to have been haphazard and ambivalent from the outset. Schlepping the massive haul of journals to each house he rented, he ignored them for years on end and never read them in chronological order. Masters admits he often left it to friends and others to elucidate facts about Not-Mary that he wasn't able to detect through her writing.

To be fair, he had his work cut out for him. Because Not-Mary's diaries were private, and written simply for herself, they naturally contained none of the obvious identifiers (age, gender, family, location etc) that a biographer would typically have to hand about his subject.

Part of this story is therefore about Masters' slow piecing together and ultimate discovery of Not-Mary's real identity, while reconciling his response to her dull yet oddly captivating entries: "I realised why I wanted to keep reading… even though they were agonisingly tedious. It is because they are true … she has not obscured the truth in balanced sentences and well-chosen words," Masters says.

Subverting the rules of biography isn't new, and A Life Discarded joins many other excellent examples that successfully mess with the genre, including Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould's Secret, Ian Hamilton's In Search of JD Salinger, and Dave Eggers' A Heart-breaking work of Staggering Genius.

Unlike a lot of contemporary biographies, these quirky life narratives don't reveal any celebrity secrets or inspire anyone to run for office, but perhaps they serve a higher purpose, by reminding us that every life is remarkable, and every life matters.

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