America is a driven country. There are no other countries on earth with as many "Type A" personalities in their populations, all competing for the excesses that come with overachievement. Failure simply isn’t an option. Those that do fail quickly find themselves tarred by the double-edged brush of personal disgrace and obscurity.
Writing professor Josh Giddings accounts for his lifelong dereliction in Failure: An Autobiography. It is a searing portrait of a man unable to live up to his own and others' expectations of him, and the overwhelming guilt that consumes him.
It’s a great premise. Giddings writes from deep within the pit of his solar plexus, where he stores the gnawing ache of his insecurities. From his early childhood through his days at the exclusive Exeter Academy, Giddings jabs at his soft underbelly with his incisive wit, showing him to be a young man a bit too full of himself, yet unable to assert himself enough at his studies to merit attention from the Ivy League.
Throughout his adolescence, Giddings allows his protruding mutability to interfere with everything from losing his virginity to risking the comfort of his staid, upper middle class life for the pursuit of a writing career. For all of his rebellious talk and high-mindedness, Giddings repeatedly springs the traps that cage him into a life he doesn’t believe he deserves.
Giddings admits his adolescence was an exercise in living the life of the mind. In his immature, pseudo-intellectual view contains a disdain for the mundane, as he engages what he believes is the far more superior world of the classics, especially the classic languages of Latin and Greek. Yet Giddings points to a strange irony of his youth. Even though he finds himself above most people, he plays lackey to those students of more refined backgrounds.
Most extraordinary is Giddings' writing style. While his descriptions of people and places are a bit formulaic, Giddings mines platinum in his digressions from the storyline. The off-track commentary illuminates the dark recesses of his self-loathing. However, Giddings also realizes moments of clarity in these passages, in which he excises the nature of his depressive state with surgical precision. Readers who have performed similar inner-examinations will walk away feeling a bond with Giddings.
This feeling becomes apparent in the chapter “My Failure as a Son.” In a phone conversation, Giddings finds out from his father that he has been a disappointment as a son. Giddings doesn’t understand the comment at the time. As a child, he related more with his mother, who was a constant in his life, rather than his globetrotting father.
Giddings acknowledges that the early bonds between himself and his father never fully formed. Preferring the safety of his mother’s doting, Giddings views his father as a distant part of his development. When a family friend suggests Giddings unwittingly hastened his father’s death by not screening medication given prior to his demise, it becomes clear Giddings carelessly left the bonds untied, leading to his father’s expressed disappointment.
Socrates once said that the unexamined life really isn’t worth living. Giddings gives this paradigm new meaning, as he wrings the blood of his own failure onto each page. Failure: An Autobiography is replete with accidental revelations which may remind readers of their own struggles with self-doubt. It’s no wonder why Giddings elucidates upon the theme of failure so successfully. For Giddings, failure is as familiar as a worn overcoat shielding him from reality. This is why the writing in Failure: An Autobiography is a stunning achievement.