If Only The Names Were Changed by Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller’s “If Only The Names Were Changed” is an ode to the American fuck-ups and the art of fucking up. The self-doubt that comes with buying into the American dream is explored at great detail, as the vying interests of preservation, endurance, and ambition fight amongst themselves. Such a psyche exists throughout the country, from coast to coast hiding in amber fields of grain. By refusing the idea that success is the goal in life, Andrew Miller lets the journey he’s been on unfurl with as much honesty as he can muster. Even over the course of the book he admits to dishonesty, the fact that a work of art can never be 100% truthful based on humanity’s propensity towards lying.
Stories pile on top of each other, one on top of the other. Various strands are woven into the story’s DNA, the self-loathing “I am an asshole” repeated over and over again. His conflict is internal. On one hand he finds the American Dream to be a purposeless void, the sort of thing that eats a person’s insides apart. Examination of his father’s life, his grandfather’s life, the difficulties they faced, versus his own, serve as the driving force throughout the book. No apologies are offered for any of these individuals he tries as best as possible to show them warts and all. For his father, a person whose influence continues to be felt long after his death, he even offers a level of forgiveness. Coping takes a lot out of a person, and even as Andrew Miller had problems with his father, he acknowledges how a lot of this came from his own father’s troubled childhood.
Privilege plays a part in this too. Andrew Miller is someone who constantly seems to be striving in order to ignore his own failures. He acknowledges that when he has messed up, gone into the deep end, been jailed, he benefits from a certain structural forms of privilege bestowed upon him. This is particularly good to see, that he acknowledges that this exact form of structural bias works in his favor while it works against so many others. Additionally he focuses on his own career, on how this gives him a veneer of respectability as does buying into the very American Dream he loathes.
Taken altogether, “If Only The Names Were Changed” is a curious blend of memoir and fiction. With a dazzling degree of different perspectives, trying hard for honesty and earnestness while retaining a truly compelling narrative. “If Only The Names Were Changed” feels like listening to a close friend you haven’t seen for a while, who urgently needs to tell you all of this in order to reflect upon themselves as well as forcing you to reexamine your life. It is perfect in its imperfections.