Blake Bailey’s remarkable memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait, is a reminder that the best books (fiction or otherwise) impart a sense of shared experience, and to read them is to participate in humanity, not retreat from it. Bailey has, by no means, cornered the market in terms of less-than-ideal upbringings. Even families that seem strongest have skins as thin as balloons, only a pinprick away from their undoing. In fact, it might be that the ordinariness of the Baileys is what is most surprising, coming as it does from the author of the superlative biographies Cheever: A Life and A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work Of Richard Yates.
Here, Blake’s main concern is his older brother Scott, who seems hell-bent on disarranging the Bailey household until it matches the mess inside his own head. There is nothing unusually heroic about the Baileys, nor is there anything even unique about their circumstance. (In this case, it seems quite deliberate the book is subtitled “a family portrait,” not “my family’s portrait.”) The Baileys are a subject of a book because a spy in their household had a pen, and his talent is that readers can see something of themselves in his words.
The book is divided into five parts, but it reads as two distinct halves. In the first, a quartet of main characters are introduced: Burck, a star lawyer from small-town Oklahoma who comes to New York City and meets Marlies, “an offbeat German girl who bore a striking resemblance to Shirley MacLaine.” Both become drunk on big New York City dreams (as well as alcohol, a recurring theme), imagining impossibly exciting futures. Then, as loudly as the thud of a slammed door, Bailey writes: “Then, my mother got pregnant.”
It’s in the book’s second half where any reader would be forgiven a tendency toward armchair psychoanalysis as their interest in the Baileys can become prescriptive if not perverse. Burck retreats into the background, and Marlies takes up the cause as best she can, seeing her own role as “the last buffer between a hopeless, desperate, possibly homicidal Scott and the rest of us.” As Scott’s increasingly irrational behavior begins to disrupt the order of things, the one who sees the writing on the wall, of course, is Blake. Even irrationality can develop into a pattern, one almost impossible to break, and the memoirist admits, “I still believed Scott was better off dead, though a comfortable nuthouse would do just as well.”
It’s next to impossible not to take sides, to dish out a bystander’s solution, not excluding a notion that Blake himself is guilty of some Biblical struggle to be rid of Scott. And Blake, in some ways, invites this reading, describing Scott as better looking, more popular, and even in his worst years, a kind of special case that required all the attention and energy of his family, erasing Blake in the process. He admits, in the book’s early pages, he was “aware that my parents found Scott more interesting, but it didn’t bother me much. I took the long view, finding insidious ways to assert my own specialness.”
This “specialness,” as it turns out, is his love of literature. In between the horror stories about his brother, Blake struggles on his own with drink and anxiety, his foolish mishaps paling in comparison to the high-drama fireworks provided by Scott’s mania. So he finds solace in books, particularly Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Could it be that Blake envies his brother’s madness, that Scott had squandered his “gift” by not transforming it into art? Or is this, too, a romanticized reading, no different than Blake poring over Exley—a map to nowhere?
[Potential spoiler ahead. —Ed.]
With his biographies before this (and Philip Roth’s selection of Blake to be the official executor of his own), Blake Bailey has cemented his stature as a premier chronicler of the literary lives of others. With The Splendid Things We Planned, Bailey has turned his literary eye toward a more personal subject. Yet, he has also done for Scott Bailey what he did for John Cheever: He has written a person to life so that others might know him, too.