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Book review: 'The Splendid Things We Planned' by Blake Bailey

Oklahoma native Blake Bailey pens first memoir.
by Ken Raymond Published: March 9, 2014

The memoir is not a pleasant read, but it is a compelling one that leads to a poignant and powerful climax. To say much more about the narrative would spoil it for you. But it is intriguing that Blake, the truthful biographer, applies a subjective truth to his own family. No one comes off as particularly likeable, especially Blake himself, and the life he recalls is heavy with pettiness and peculiarity but light on love.

As the literary Scott descends into madness — he is, at one point, diagnosed as schizophrenic, although Blake casts that aside in one or two sentences — he becomes a lively dervish of a character; everyone around him is lost in his shadow. Through much of the book, though, Scott is gone. This is where the difference between biography and memoir looms largest.

The book’s focus, Blake said, originally was meant to be Scott. As he labored to write it, at the same time constructing the literary biographies that have made him famous, Blake realized that the story was as much about him as it was his brother. If there is anything disappointing about the memoir, it’s that Blake portrays himself as a diffident, unmotivated character who would’ve been right at home in “Less Than Zero.” During these long passages, when Blake and Scott are separated by geography or jail walls, and to an extent in their late interactions, Blake comes across as maddeningly passive, content to watch things play out rather than actively engage.

Overall, however, “The Splendid Things We Planned” is an extraordinary read for at least two reasons: Blake is a masterly writer with exquisite turns of phrase, and Scott is a strange but oddly luminous character who will stick with you long after the book’s end.

by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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