Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memoir, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, has a lot of workout tips. Over the course of 600-plus pages of short sentences and small words, readers will learn that exercising makes them strong, and that they should do it a lot. But reading the tome is a workout in itself; my forearms got noticeably stronger just from lugging the thing around for a few days. And that’s one of the key problems with this book — that it lives up to its title but not to its subtitle. Schwarzenegger totally recalls everything about his life story, but, unfortunately for those of us called by duty to power through the Harry Potter–sized volume, it’s all pretty believable. (N.B. to future memoirists: Unless you’re a boy wizard or a Russian axe murderer, your life is not interesting enough for 600 pages. Sorry. Your publisher is lying to you.)
So here’s the CliffsNotes: Arnold Schwarzenegger started exercising a bunch, bonked a lot of gorgeous women, won a ton of prizes for slowly flexing his chiseled bod to background music, made piles of cash by beating up people in movies, met a boatload of famous people, married a Kennedy, got to be governor and was totally awesome at it, kind of buggered up his family dynamic by having a love child and then not telling his wife for 14 years, and then made a nice list of life tips so you can be an all-American success story too.
Of course, you still might want to read this book, especially if you want to hear all about the intricacies of the European bodybuilding circuit in the 1960s or Maria Shriver’s approach to reupholstery. And if you also happen to like pictures of preposterously pectoralled menfolk in Speedos but for whatever reason have trouble finding them on the Internet, you should boogie on down to your local Barnes and Noble posthaste for a copy of your new favorite book.
If you don’t fit in any of these camps, though, you might not really love Total Recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t stupid, as far as I can tell, but parts of this book make him seem consternatingly so. For instance, when he starts acting, he learns from a coach about getting in touch with his feelings. “It was the first time I’d heard anybody articulate ideas about the emotions: intimidation, inferiority, superiority, embarrassment, encouragement, comfort, discomfort. A whole new world of language appeared.” If you heard “A Whole New World” playing in your mind when you learned what the word “embarrassment” means, please don’t run for governor. Schwarzenegger also makes an innovative argument against the proposal that violent movies sometimes encourage violent behavior. That’s impossible, he holds. “Otherwise there would have been no murders before movies were invented,” he writes, “and the Bible is full of them.” Glad that debate’s over!
The memoir is sprinkled with paragraph-long direct quotes from the former governor. Either he has perfect memory of five-minute-long monologues he delivered decades ago or he carried a tape recorder around with him his entire adulthood. Given the size of his ego, the latter isn’t implausible. Schwarzenegger exhaustively chronicles every single accomplishment of his life, including the “hot affair” he had with sexpot Brigitte Nielsen shortly before proposing to Shriver. It’s all good, though, because romping through Europe with the Danish model taught him an important lesson. He writes, “The fling with Brigitte Nielsen underlined what I already knew: I wanted Maria to be my wife.” Precious.
And that’s just our Arnold, who seems to always make the most of daunting situations. For instance, abysmal approval ratings in his second gubernatorial term just propelled him forward: “I felt more like a hungry eagle rather than a lame duck,” he writes. An enviable state, indeed.
He wraps up the book with a list of life lessons, which vary in practicality. Does a family member scorn your ambitions? Arnold’s father did, but he didn’t let that stop him. “It put fuel on the fire in my belly,” he writes. Readers should take as much belly-fire fuel as they can get. Other pieces of advice? “Forget plan B,” “The day has twenty-four hours,” “Change takes big balls,” and “Don’t overthink.” He left out the most practical lesson, though, and one that might have given his book an even sunnier ending: For goodness’ sake, even though your wife’s out of town, don’t bang the housekeeper.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.