Anyone who has read a story with an unreliable narrator, or half-believed James Frey’s notorious not-really-a-memoir A Million Little Pieces, might have moments of feeling skeptical about the truth of Glen David Gold’s I Will Be Complete. Gold begins his memoir with the announcement that for a while he lived alone in San Francisco, when he was 12 years old. As his childhood story unfolds, this seemingly unbelievable development ends up feeling quite possible. His view of himself as a child, a teenager and a man coming of age is neither self-deprecating nor claiming victimhood, and this honest self-appraisal enables a convincing, if ever incomplete, narrator. Late in the memoir, Gold addresses the question of reliable narrators with regard to his mother, as she is central both to the narrative and to Gold’s sense of himself: “If I’m a writer, you’d think I might know what it means that my mother is an unreliable narrator. But I really don’t. I believe every story she tells me, every version of it.”

Gold’s story begins in the affluent seaside community of Corona del Mar, south of Los Angeles. His father, a successful engineer, and his mother, a glamorous young British ex-pat who thrives among the wealthy, divorce during Gold’s childhood. His father flees to Chicago, and Gold moves to San Francisco with his mother, who has no real plan that Gold can discern. One night, dropping her then-boyfriend at the airport, she buys a ticket and boards the plane to New York with the same spontaneity that took them to San Francisco. It would be shortsighted to call it whimsical. We learn through Gold’s stories that “impulsive” would be a better word to describe his mother, who is unable to function as a proper parent. Her willingness to acknowledge her shortcomings is summed up in the “note on the accuracy of the text,” which serves as an epigraph: “My mother assures me none of this happened.”

Gold’s efforts to figure out who he is and who he wants to be is a consistent theme throughout the book. This is the frame against which he develops portraits of the people most significant to his upbringing: his father, his mother and the odd maybe-a-role model, Peter Charming, an eccentric trickster who seduces Gold’s mother and becomes an important but impermanent figure in their lives. Such was life in San Francisco in the 1970s. Of Charming’s influence, Gold writes, “When I remember Peter’s voice, I can hear his monologues as if they play on a loop somewhere independent of time or space, like there’s a station eternally broadcasting him and it’s just a matter of what’s playing when you happen to tune in.”

Recounting the journey from the airport to Peter Charming’s house when they first arrived in San Francisco, Gold writes, “I realized that I was telling myself about what had happened fractions of a second after it happened. After that collision with the cab, that sense never left me.” That 10-year-old version of Gold set in motion a detachment that kept him safe in a fractured world. Yet he also realized that detachment was one of the things that kept him from being fully present in his life.

In trying to sort out his identity and influences, Gold looks at the lives of both of his parents, trying to do so from a perspective of a son and as well as an aspiring objective observer. This is not an easy balance to strike, yet Gold’s honest discussion of his desire to know who these people are, and how they came to relate to him as parents, demands stepping outside of his own experience. They are two wildly different people, part of the curious circle that keeps the reader engaged: he wants to know who his parents are, and he wants the readers to know as well. If we are the sum of our influences, who does that make us?

This is a story not only of coming of age but also of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Berkeley, California, with brief stops elsewhere. Gold’s gift for vivid description brings the 1970s and 1980s to life. From fashion to decor, from diction to choice of reading material, he expertly finds the details to create a solid sense of place. Skilled description also does important work in creating scenes and interactions that allow the reader to enter Gold’s world, and his mind. Even when recounting his own worst behaviors, or the inexplicable actions of those closest to him, Gold’s writing established a subtle, compassionate connection with the reader.

The instinct to say “it’s as if there are three books here” is replaced by the reality that there are, in fact, three books here. None would stand up independent of the others because one needs the others in order to be complete. Whether or not it is possible for Gold himself to be complete is challenged by his awareness that it is necessary to the human condition that we are always in flux. There are moments in Gold’s writing that could be compared to the trope of reality television known as the confessional, a break in the narrative when one cast member offers a direct-to-camera commentary on the situation. For instance: “I needed to tell you about the person I was before I told you about the person I became. And here I was, finally. It was so familiar, how as I stood up, I felt dim, and welcomed back by an old feeling. I recognized myself: stooped slightly, my ability to make sentences slowed down, ideas bowing at the halfway point from a sense that finishing them didn’t matter.”

In the second part of I Will Be Complete, Gold writes about studying Japanese at Wesleyan University. While his stories reveal that he has always been curious about the human condition—perhaps his own human condition rather than a general inquiry—the lasting influence of Japanese culture serves as an insight for Gold, but eventually becomes a source of self-doubt in the third part of the book. He reveals the last two times he spoke Japanese in public: on the day he charmed himself into a job at Hunter’s Books in the Westwood area of Los Angeles, and the evening he took a woman to a Japanese restaurant and was mocked loudly by the staff for his foolish arrogance. Gold is often caught between his naivete and his self-assurance, a quality that makes him both likable to readers and vulnerable to the people around him.

The third section of Gold’s memoir, “The Book of Revelation,” is aptly named. The processes through which many things are revealed gives Gold the opportunity to answer the questions about himself that are at the core of the book. Like all that leads up to it, this last part of the memoir brims over with careful articulation of the pain and joy that make I Will Be Complete a stellar read. Joining Gold on this journey is at times breathtaking, at times painstaking, and finally, whole.

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