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‘Stay True’ Review: A Paean to Friendship’s Afterlives

4.5 Stars

The cover of Hua Hsu's "Stay True."
The cover of Hua Hsu's "Stay True." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

There are certain moments in our lives that accrue meaning retroactively, exerting a stubborn gravitational pull even as we forge ahead. It is these moments that guide Hua Hsu’s precise, penetrating memoir “Stay True,” an account of growing up in 1980s America and experiencing the death of a close friend. Hsu is not interested in conscribing himself to a single genre; at once a eulogy and a bildungsroman, a homage and a work of autotheory, the book is a layered form of searching.

Hsu does not tell his reader what he is looking for; it is quite possible he himself cannot put a name to it either. Through precise ruminations on friendship and loss — ones all the more potent because of their rich historical grounding — Hsu illuminates at once the lingering ends and new beginnings that follow loss.

“There are many currencies to friendship,” Hsu writes early in his memoir. “Some friends complete us, while others complicate us.” His reflection is a cogent analysis of what happens when an easygoing, ever-inquisitive peer named Ken walks into his life. Readers meet Hsu, a college student at UC Berkeley, similar to how they may have been during that time in their lives: eager to become themselves, but unsure of what that means. In the coming years, Ken becomes at once a confidante and a foil, someone Hsu leans on and measures himself against as he attempts to articulate his identity. Particularly delightful is the way Hsu melds popular culture with literary theory, not dissimilar to how a real college experience transpires. His prose is infused with references to Kurt Cobain and Jacques Derrida, Pearl Jam and Aristotle, resulting in a synthetic framework that captures the heady intellectual growth of his college years.

Hsu’s period of dynamic discovery alongside Ken comes to an abrupt end when he and his friends receive a harrowing call early one morning: Ken, walking in the early hours of dawn alone from a party, was robbed and shot dead. The event uproots the stability and fellowship Hsu had developed with his friends in the months before. His college years, which had been defined by an enterprising intellectualism — a desire to find patterns and answers — is replaced by a deafening absence that defies logic. Hsu’s prose unearths with aching candor the difficulty of moving past a tragedy that seems at once disorienting and deeply unfair.

It is after this event that “Stay True” turns inward to meditate on the purpose of its own prose — and of writing at large — in addressing the aftermath of grief. “I became obsessed with the possibility of a sentence that could wend its way backward,” Hsu writes. “I picked up a pen and tried to write myself into the past.” It is with this understated yet forceful revelation with which Hsu’s memoir comes to a close — to grieve means to bend time. Ken’s death does not curtail Hsu’s dialogue with his beloved friend; instead, it enlarges and complicates it.

“I wrote out of a sense of responsibility for our past,” Hsu writes. Indeed, Ken becomes a part of Hsu. It is through this intimate post-mortem embrace that the memoir — and, by extension, Hsu himself — is able to achieve what seems impossible: to hold the departed close while also letting them go.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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