An oral biography, in its assembled nature, due to the unwieldy fact of its very existence, is usually nothing more than a shaggy beast of a book. You have hundreds of people collected together in print, commenting on someone of note, usually dead, in anecdotal form. Put that way, such a process of literary investigation sounds less like a project and more like a lark. This is the benefit of the form -- this feeling that what one is reading is not some sort of monetary assignment at all, but is instead just a goof. Its looseness liberates the very life under discussion.
ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY by Mitchell Zuckoff and GEORGE, BEING GEORGE George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative Observers are both books that are both perfectly suited to the form, because the lives under discussion were in and of themselves discursive, digressive, diversionary. They meandered here and there, and eventually assembled for themselves something very much that resembled a self.
Altman, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, allowed his actors and environment to help him fashion his films; Plimpton, bon vivant, lover of fireworks and parties, founded the most prestigious literary magazine in America, then somehow found time to practically invent the category of 'participatory journalsit', hurling himself into various sporting, musical and artistic adventures so that we, as readers, could imagine what amateurs like ourselves would do in the same situation. Altman was our rambling guide to the raging unconscious of American life writ large on the screen, while Plimpton served as the continuous upper-class buffoon so that we might in his antics appreciate the pros all the more. Both gentlemen were solitary adventurers of the spirit who took everyone else along for the ride.
Which is what a good book should do, too, and which these two veritable tomes amply do -- put us square in the passenger seat, comfortable and alert, and that's quite easy to do when you're guided along on the path by a veritable plethora of engaging voices. Both of these books let their subjects' fanily and friends, enemies and colleagues speak for themselves, via their own recollections. This makes for enormously readable stuff. You can tell yourself that nothing was 'assembled', because the years flow by and the experiences add up with input from this lover, or that chum, and we can all pretend that there's no overarching editor behind the whole experience, because that would seem rather stiff. Altman and Plimpton, roughly of the same generation, lived lives that were anything but rigid, because both were immensely freewheeling, with a keen sense of glee, and their respective books revel in that uncanny energy they brought to their crafts, their almost reckless enjoyment of what their art should exude.
Reading both books within a relatively short span of time, I came away wondering: Where are the Altmans and Plimptons of today? We need more people like this -- those who alter the energy of a room and a culture simply by entering through a door partly open. Perhaps they both evolved out of a time that appreciated such immediacy more than this screened-in generation. Both Altman and Plimpton used their environments to augment their craft, but also expand the culture's underlying sense of what public space should contain. Reading and listening to all these myriad voices in a collective chorus of awe, I found myself missing men that I'd never met, wondering if I would, or even could, ever meet someone like them in my life, or if I should take it upon myself to fashion an existence that in my own individual manner resembled what they each brought to earth.