Sometimes memoirs can seem like the book world's tool shed, or basement workshop -- the place where people go to tinker with the past and resurrect ghosts, and only rarely to actually reinvent. Yet every so often -- and even, as the genre matures, with gathering frequency -- a book comes along that shakes that model-kit familiarity and proves that strange and wonderful things can come from retreating to a dank, lonely place to hammer together salvaged memories. Two new slim and beguiling memoirs do this in part by lapsing here and there in their allegiance to the genre, and drawing on the biographer's art. But not just any biographer; rather, the skeptical biographer.
As the skeptical biographer knows, pinning a person to the page is not unlike coaxing a cat; indirection and a loose grasp go a long way. ''The innermost secrets of a proud and dignified spirit have a way of retreating when too strenuously pursued," the Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Frank once wrote. Or, as the provocative biographer-skeptic Janet Malcolm has put it, ''The narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life." That is, just as the cat is caught, it wriggles away. Those memoirists who are comfortable with that -- who can see the value of an approximation over a replica -- are usually best able, contradictorily enough, to fully resurrect a person.
Novelist Howard Norman's memoir, ''In Fond Remembrance of Me," isn't really about himself at all but, instead, a very brief and unexpected friendship. In August 1977, an American museum sent the aspiring translator to Churchill, Manitoba, for 2½ months to collect Inuit tales. He was 28 years old, still finding his way, not yet a writer, and, in his own words, not even ''very self-reflective, to put it bluntly." Not long after checking into the Beluga Hotel he heard a knock at his door and opened it to find a woman in a green parka with her black hair tied in a topknot. Like him, Helen Tanizaki, an Anglo-Japanese ''linguist, translator, diarist, prodigious writer of letters" 11 years his senior, was there to collect Inuit tales. But unlike him, she was accomplished, seasoned, beautifully articulate, deeply introspective, even eccentric. ''In most respects we were from opposite ends of the earth," Norman writes.
Tanizaki was also dying before his eyes, of stomach cancer, a fact that heightened her characteristic forthrightness and lent an urgency to their friendship, though this is one thing neither ever admitted outright; their relationship, like the book itself, warded against sentimentality. And though Norman never says as much, her dying may have even made their friendship possible. Had she been well, might these two strangers in a strange land have blundered into romance? His language is certainly at times romantic: ''I was adrift in the desire -- it felt like an enormous sea-of-desire -- to comprehend as much about Helen Tanizaki as possible," he writes. But his desire, though urgent, was unclouded by a new lover's blindness. Her dying ''required that I more memorize her than slowly 'get to know' her -- there was to be no slowly allowed."
Norman may have been young and inexperienced, but this instinct to give himself over so completely to the other was wise, and imbues his recollections with a piercing clarity. The woman assembled of memories and journal entries from that brief Arctic sojourn and a couple seasons' worth of letters -- she died in Japan the following summer -- is as distinct as the ornithological drawings she pored over every evening in search of the bird she hoped would take the form of her reincarnation.
The rewards of immersion in the other also sustains ''The Face of a Naked Lady," Michael Rips's deeply unusual and compelling family quest. Clearing out his father's belongings after his death, Rips discovers a portfolio of paintings of a nude black woman, each finished with the dead man's unmistakable signature. Suddenly, his entire past is called into question: Who was the mild-mannered, nearly invisible, Midwestern optician of his youth? Was the Republican in bespoke suits someone other than he seemed?
Flush with the child's narcissism of setting things straight, and convinced that by finding the woman in the painting he'll unearth the extraordinary secrets of an ordinary man, he sets off on a memoir-as-detective story set against a gothic Omaha landscape, where the night watchman is an oracle, and a water-logged corpse can slip through a diner ceiling.
Rips is the master of the buried lead; paragraphs end bottom up, and nothing is what it seems. Ferociously, indirectly, he interviews his father's friends and closes in on his memories, in fast pursuit of a shape that is always just beyond his reach. Along the way, he dredges up a great deal of curiosities -- brothels, stockyards and slaughterhouses, an optical factory staffed by social misfits. But in death, as in life, ''so insistent was I in finding continuity in him, in discovering a persistent essence, that I ignored what he had become," Rips writes.
It's not until Rips himself gives himself over to the other, and relinquishes the chase, that he finds the man he was seeking. Should we call him, then, the memoirist skeptic? ''In the subsequent years, I have wondered whether in flipping so quickly through our lives and the lives of others, we have created the appearance of continuous selves where there is none."
Kate Bolick is the deputy features editor of The New York Sun. Her column appears every other month.