There is a lot of pain in The Sarah Book. There is some joy too, but Scott McClanahan has sandwiched these happy moments in between the illustration of a decomposing marriage. He quotes a book from his past: “The lines were all different now: ‘whether I shall turn out to be the villain of my own life…these pages must show.’” McClanahan is aware how he comes off in The Sarah Book—and it’s not flattering—but it is something he felt the need to document and I’m glad he did. Writing can be a therapeutic exercise and I can understand McClanahan authoring this from that viewpoint, but it begs the questions: Why am I holding a published copy in my hands? What is McClanahan saying that transcends an attempt at self-discovery? It feels like a cop-out to say he is building empathy for those in failing relationships, but that’s exactly what he is doing. The Sarah Book shows it’s not easy for anyone in a marriage on the verge of collapse—whether they want to dissolve the union or keep it together. By example, McClanahan gives us an insider’s look at his problems and the consequences resulting from his actions.
McClanahan shows the difference in finding over-the-top actions endearing (like filling their living room with a kiddie pool and piles of sand because their beach vacation was canceled) and frightening (such as living in a Walmart parking lot in an attempt to elicit enough sympathy so his wife would take him back). We’re essentially seeing McClanahan’s behavior on a graph and how it relates to his wife’s tolerance and patience. On a scale from lovably ridiculous to creepy stalker, where does X fit on the graph of their marriage?
The Sarah Book is built in three sections. The first is their crumbling home life, the second is the separation, and the third is their divorce. Throughout, we see McClanahan hope his whole situation is a temporary discomfort instead of an inevitable end. Without any reason, he anticipates a reunion with Sarah. The reader even thinks it’s a possibility until we get a scene with Sarah and we know instinctively there is no chance of them working it out. It is made more tragic by the fact the reader begins to understand the hopelessness of McClanahan’s expectations, yet he never seems to understand until the very end.
Sprinkled throughout, we get glimpses of their beginning. We get moments where it makes sense why they fell in love. McClanahan drops a quick sentence into the beginning, “I vomited dumb jokes and the moments that were just moments and not stories.” This encapsulates the book because while we get small moments not necessarily stories within themselves, they help build a mosaic of a tragic—and often beautiful—portrait of his first marriage.
They get a dog named Mr. King. He seems too spot-on as a representation for their love to actually be real in their life, but I like to think Mr. King was really their pet. He was missing one eye and blind in the other. The first night they had him, they thought he had fleas, but instead it was mange and Mr. King ended up giving Sarah and McClanahan the human equivalent: scabies. McClanahan demanded they get rid of the dog the night they got him, but changed his mind the next morning and learned to love the decrepit dog. In the end, Mr. King died a painful death. Every time McClanahan tried to bury the body, the grave flooded and Mr. King’s bloated body surfaced. As painful and ugly and hard as Mr. King was, Scott McClanahan couldn’t get away from him, not even in death.
On the back copy of the book, the description states this is a “semi-autobiographical portrait about falling in love.” On the publisher information page, there is the small note, one we often see in novels: “This is a work of fiction. All of the characters and organizations portrayed herein are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” This makes me suspicious (scenes with Mr. King come to mind) and it makes me think of the Coen brothers’ movie, Fargo. At the beginning of the movie there is a disclaimer telling the audience the film was based on a true story, but the names have been changed out of respect for the survivors. We then see a brutal two-hour crime movie and at the end of the credits we get another disclaimer much like the one in The Sarah Book, “This is a work of fiction.” When asked why they put the note at the beginning, the Coens said Fargo had such a crazy crime story at its heart that they wanted to see how much further they could push it and have people buy into it. I’m sure McClanahan could say the same thing about The Sarah Book, but at the same time nothing all that outrageous happens—nothing that requires a mask of truth. This could be entirely a work of fiction—and it’d almost be more impressive that way—or, like the back copy indicates, there could be embellishments and exaggerations earning it the “semi-autobiography” badge.
When we get down to it, though, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Books are supposed to open readers’ eyes to new experiences and build a sense of empathy. With that criteria, Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book is damn effective.