Questioning Her Own Questioning: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’

March 9, 2020 | 3 books mentioned 5 min read

“The impulse to escape our lives is universal,” Leslie Jamison writes in her new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a book—both directly and indirectly—full of methods to escape the doldrums of daily existence: virtual-world games, travel, near-mythic sea creatures, fairy tales, past lives, the unreality of Las Vegas.

Jamison writes, “Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.” These lines capture an attitude that runs through the collection, a particular perspective that adheres together the book’s wide array of subjects and styles: even though the manifestations of our interests and beliefs might look vastly different, the same underlying challenges and desires unite us.

coverJamison is known best for The Empathy Exams, an essay collection from 2014 propelled to international attention by way of its opening piece, a memoir-driven, braided essay investigating the idea of empathy. In many ways, the book was an unlikely hit. Sharing little in common with humorous personal essay collections—which often reach wide audiences and hit bestseller lists—The Empathy Exams uses a wild mix of forms and styles. It was research-based and journalistic as often as it was personal and more reminiscent of the work of writers like Baldwin and Didion.

But the magic of The Empathy Exams is simple: Jamison is a stunning writer. She’s an emotionally raw and revealing memoirist; a journalist looking outward with a keen and nuanced eye; a literary critic finding clues to understanding the modern world from the literature of the recent past. In the book, she seems to be Jo Ann Beard, Janet Malcom, and Susan Sontag all wrapped into one. And in the years since its release, The Empathy Exams has become a touchstone; one of those books that other books are frequently compared to.

coverLast year she published The Recovering, a personal and literary history of alcoholism and recovery. But Make It Scream, Make It Burn is the true follow-up for which fans and interested admirers have been waiting. This level of anticipation rarely bodes well. There are so many ways that a follow-up can disappoint and, as great as it is, Make It Scream, Make It Burn will surely disappoint some.

While The Empathy Exams set its tone by beginning with its most personal essay, Make It Scream begins with one of its least personal: “52 Blue,” the story of a lonely whale, singing its own tune, and the humans who turn the whale into a metaphor. It’s perhaps one of the collection’s best essays, but initially it doesn’t seem like an ideal opener; it’s a slow burn, research-heavy, loaded with exposition. It’s only through the second essay—“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” a piece about past-life claims—that “52 Blue” is put into thematic context and the work it’s done as an opener suddenly becomes obvious.

“I’d grown deeply skeptical of skepticism itself,” Jamison writes in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again.” “It seemed easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.”

It’s the ultimate essayist move: a writer questioning her own questioning; pushing against the act of pushing against. Though she never addresses where the boundaries of open-minded consideration lie, the essay’s bid for mystery and wonder feels exciting, almost ecstatic. It’s here that the book picks up speed and the collection’s larger themes come into focus: the limitations of doubt, how narrative and metaphor operate in our daily lives, and the universal need to believe in self-improvement. She writes, “Reincarnation struck me as an articulation of faith in the self as something that could transform and stay continuous at once—in sobriety, in love, in the body of a stranger.”

Jamison is an expert at restraint. She often holds her opinions back to let her readers come to their own conclusions, and she regularly keeps essays from becoming too personal to ensure the subject at hand isn’t overshadowed. But it’s when she lets the reins out—when she momentarily puts her journalist and literary-critic selves to the side—that her talent becomes more obvious.

In “Layover,” Jamison begins with a simple situation—“This is the story of a layover,” she writes. “Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now.”—and lets it expand into the universal, like the perfectly impossible textbook definition of a personal essay and what it can do. What begins as a piece about an annoying, overnight layover develops into a piece about the blurry lines between selflessness and selfishness. “Does graciousness mean you want to help—or that you don’t, and do it anyway?” Jamison writes. “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particular backstory.”

Later in the book, “Rehearsals” opens with a line announcing a certain wildness to come: “Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth.” As unhinged as the best wedding dance party, the essay flips from the second person to first person, bouncing around the country, chronicling the narrator’s experiences as a wedding guest. Beyond its sentence-level play, it manages to also be in conversation with the collection’s ideas about constructing narrative and casting doubt aside. “You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and you’re all in agreement—not to believe in love, but to want to. This, you can do.”

As skeptical as Jamison has become of skepticism, she’s still a skeptic in a certain essayistic sense: she’s always digging deeper, refusing to trust surface appearances, never letting a wedding be just a wedding. “Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings,” she writes. “They give a horizon to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.”

Despite these gems of forward motion, Make It Scream, Make It Burn doesn’t have the same energy of The Empathy Exams. In large part, it’s simply because the book is so neatly organized. While The Empathy Exams bounced between essay forms, giving it an excitement and unpredictability, this collection is broken up into three sections, with similar essays grouped together. The book is perhaps more coherent because of it, but it also creates spots where the pace slows to a crawl—especially in the middle section, where a series of three art and literary criticism essays bogs the book down, despite each essay working individually.

Still, Make It Scream is easily one of the best essay collections of the year, if not of the past decade. Jamison is a superstar of personal essay for a reason—not only is she a great prose stylist and meticulous researcher, she’s also infinitely curious. It’s this curiosity that makes everything she writes so infectious and makes this collection what it is: a wise and open assortment of essays that, throughout, feels like a gift.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Fellow Creatures: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’
Notes from the Purgatory File: An Interview with Leslie Jamison
A Year in Reading: Leslie Jamison
Bottoming Out: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Recovering’
The Millions Interview: Leslie Jamison

is a regular contributor to The Portland Mercury and Hobart. He's the author of the chapbook Everyday Mythologies on Two Plum Press, and he's currently working on a collection of essays about eyes.

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