1.A week before the Camp Fire raged through Butte County and decimated a little town called Paradise, I sat on the edge of Lake Tahoe, reading, until the sun went down. That evening the sun grew round and pink in the sky, and as it swelled, it turned the clouds pastel, too, and made a rosy blanket out of the lake’s surface. Usually the wind picks up at sunset and the water heaves against the shore’s pebbled incline. But as I sat there, looking east to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the air was eerily still, even ominous. I thought it miraculous that our state had made it out of one of the most vicious legs of fall unscathed.
That evening was too miraculous to last. The long week of the fires, masks were donned as defense against toxic air. Texts and calls accumulated, from family and friends, either inquiring about the blazes or noting the destruction they had caused in their lives, or the lives of those who were special to them. Coworkers and passersby buzzed with nervous inquiries about what’s to become of this state. I’ve noticed a decline in the amount of hope people are willing to wrangle out of the maxim that the uncertainty of California’s future is the only certain thing about it.
Autumn in California has always felt existential, the grave threat of wildfires aside. The light shifts and my mood shifts with it, toward melancholy. I lean on books about the state or the American West or the “frontier” — that confused, cruel place! — and often resort to rereading a select few. This year was no different. (If anything, the impulse seemed more exaggerated since I resumed probing my family’s pioneer past.) And on the shore of Lake Tahoe that evening, I had beside me Joan Didion’s mournful but resolute Where I Was From. “The redemptive power of the crossing,” Didion writes of pioneers’ journey westward, “was the fixed idea of the California settlement, and one that raised a further question: for what exactly, and at what cost, had one been redeemed?”
Didion does not pose such questions with the hope that they’ll be answered. Instead, they’re a useful means of illuminating a consequence of turning places into ideas: fraught histories, and to some degree catastrophic natural disasters, get flattened out in spells of obsession. But even Didion, who demonstrates a grating awareness to the ways in which overdetermined relationships to geographies are formed, is not fully immune to the urge. In this way, Where I Was From fits comfortably into the long tradition of texts that seek to touch the weight of the West, California included — only to come up with dead ends and futile object lessons. Perhaps this might always be a symptom of writing sacrament into the land, or the less successful project of seeking to untangle one from the other.
Still, this shared and unrelenting ambition to confront the ineffable seems unity enough. My consideration of Didion’s insoluble questions about settler redemption cast new light on Willa Cather’s brimming masterpiece of a novel, My Antonia (1918), and Mary Austin’s stunning collection of lyric essays, The Land of Little Rain (1903), both of which were autumn rereads. It is equally easy to be seduced by the prose styles of Cather and Austin — each singularly beautiful, but similarly tender and sure — and thus to read these works solely for the aesthetic rush. But behind the bewitching descriptions of billowing prairie grasses and deep, desolate valleys is the pang of something more sorrowful, if not entirely sinister. These texts don’t have the relative advantage of historical distance, yet monumental atrocity haunts both, its effects delivered through key absences — mostly of Native Americans, unless they appear as quiet relics or in the form of landmark names — and the glaring implications of the rhetoric of forged possibility.
Eula Biss articulates the compounded factors of the American West better than I can, though, in her astonishing book Notes from No Man’s Land. Over 13 essays she examines the potent and enabling mixture of racism, selective memory, and downright delusion that continues to make the frontier idea feasible. I reread the title essay at least once a week this fall, each time in awe of Biss’s ability, through vignettes and telling details, to identify modern offshoots of the pioneers’ “hostile fantasy” — that grave “mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited.”
In the wake of California’s apocalyptic blazes, I suspect there’s some contemporary form of this fantasy at play, too. A form that, despite the new and intransigent reality of a prolonged Fire Season, still indulges an idea of misplaced resilience as a justification for business as usual. I’m curious to see how the next generation of California writers will toggle between depicting our new reality (perversely beautiful descriptions of flames aplenty) and tending the mythologies of our state that keep us all marching onward, toward infinity.
2.When I graduated from university earlier this year it felt like I was foreclosing on some other kind of infinity. Aside from the idea that I was to be endowed with a few practical skills along the way, my undergraduate education largely revolved around the selfish cultivation of my intellectual curiosity. I spent four years reading various works of literature before discussing them with any number of encouraging professors, whom I idolized. Everything about this loop of artificial circumstances felt limitless, and giving it up was sobering. But it was not until doing so that I realized how transactional college had made my relationship to reading. There was always the underlying pressure to read better, smarter, and more rigorously—not to mention the relative impossibility of applying such a careful practice to the handful of novels that had to be read each week. Because I am naive, few aspects of leaving college felt as revelatory as coming to terms with my altered relationship to books.
I thus spent the months just after graduation freshly falling under reading’s spell. I would go to work, then go for a swim, then cancel plans so that I could curl up with a book on some grassy knoll with a view of the Bay, in the light’s remaining hours. And, as if an immediate prompting from the gods, Between Friends: The Collected Letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy — a book over which I’d been in a semester-long Library-Hold War — became mine for more than a week. (In one letter, Arendt deems a scarf gifted from McCarthy too beautiful to be a “use-object,” and I suggest you read the collection just for moments like that.) Because it was the letters’ perfect complement, I finally finished Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough, which is a dazzlingly smart and persuasive examination of several female intellectuals who, at least rhetorically, took no prisoners. Naturally this called for a rereading of Renata Adler’s perfect and hilarious novel Speedboat and a first galavant with n+1’s pamphlet, No Regrets, which features several discussions between women writers about reading in their 20s. Wisdom abounds in this delightful little book on topics like unusual author pairings and navigating first encounters with theory. But the conversations that both challenge collegiate obligations to the “boy canon,” and also the “oughts” of disciplined reading, were of particular comfort to me during my postgraduate limbo.
Regardless, there was still the plan, during those lulling summer months, to finally conquer George Eliot’s Middlemarch because the novel is Important. The conquering was to be done with a friend, also a recent graduate, who lived in Rhode Island. Through June and July he sent clever messages about his progress with the book until he finished it entirely. I disappointingly did neither. But what I did do — that is, fully immerse myself in the world of newly published fiction for the first time — was mostly a joyous and worthwhile experience.
I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s pithy and conniving My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Then there was Andrew Martin’s enviably precise debut Early Work, which seems the blueprint for a certain kind of LRB-reading, late-millennial milieu. Ling Ma’s Severance is a dynamic and intriguing courting of the old “goodbye to all that” adage, though here it gets an update, you might say, with the onset of apocalypse, epidemic, and the ills of late capitalism. And I enjoyed Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, not least for the author’s near-philosophical treatment of an affair between a young, intellectually ambitious editorial assistant and a decaying, Roth-like writer. These books, with the exception of Moshfegh’s, join a host of recently published works whose plots are driven, in part, by the demands of literary production and the apprehensions they generate. More interesting still is the overarching trend in characterization: fictional attributes seem to emerge almost exclusively through the real-world connotations of cultural objects and of industries, rather than through descriptive language. This year novels and memes appear to have functions in common.
I found the fiction-as-snapshot tendency compelling, but R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries was a refreshing departure from the above works. It’s a stunning novel. The author’s ability to maintain such a streamlined style while fostering her characters’ unique perspectives is nothing short of alchemy. I feel similarly enthusiastic about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which I regret reading in a sitting because I didn’t want it to end. This debut is a welcome modernization of the California novel because it seamlessly challenges all the genre’s mentioned absences, and also makes room for literary documentation of parenting’s tediousness. And while the contemporary and its objects loom large in Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country—Russian politics, Facebook, and the grim academic job market all make cameos—I ardently devoured this book and reveled in the presence of its narrative arc, a construction that feels rarer and rarer.
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood yielded the most obliterating reading experience of the summer. I picked up a copy the weekend my family was in town for my department commencement, and in between the hours we’d spend together, I’d sneak away to read bits of it. The book’s central question is outwardly simple: Should or shouldn’t the writer-protagonist have a baby? But what transpires from this question is a profound and expansive engagement with all the ways one can be a mother, or a child. In a later chapter titled “PMS,” our narrator wrestles with her mother’s own parenting orientation. That is, how the narrator’s mother “lived her life turned towards her mother,” and not towards her offspring.
I clung tightly to this articulation of a life turned backwards, of a life lived for one’s mother, either out of honor or indebtedness or both. Though I read Jacqueline Rose’s comprehensive Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty back in April, it wasn’t until encountering Motherhood that I felt as if a book had captured all that is indescribable, and oftentimes inexplicably tragic, about matrilineal bonds. What’s more, Heti confronts earnestly what can sometimes feel mystical about maternal lines, not least for their internal logics and passed-down lore. And as much as these bonds can be sources of love and pride, they can also be wells of great sadness, regret and loss. The afternoon I finished that chapter titled “PMS” I sobbed and sobbed, and then met my mother for a walk. As we ambled through the eucalyptus groves on my college campus, she retold the story of her medical school aspirations and how my birth had superseded but not ruined them. I told her I did not take it for granted that she was turned towards my brothers and me.
3.In these final moments of 2018, the mystical has hurtled into my life once again. If you walk into a bar or coffee shop in many parts of the Bay Area, you’re bound to hear people discussing astrology. Asking one’s star sign seems as much a habitual platitude as it does a search for cosmic compatibility. I remain skeptical, but I get the craze: like the mythologizing of California or the psychic weight one attributes to matrilineal bonds, astrology affords us an organizing principle for all that seems destined and chaotic in life. Now I reluctantly read The Cut’s Madame Clairvoyant column for my sign’s entry (Taurus) and also the entries for the signs of people I love or loathe. Then I check them all against tweets from the Astro Poets.
My doubt of and preoccupation with astrology has met its match in Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School darling and iconic grump. I recently finished his tome-like 1957 essay “The Stars Down to Earth: The Los Angeles Times Astrology Column,” which takes Carroll Righter’s new age-y, quintessentially Los Angeles horoscopes column as its case study. From there, Adorno harangues his readers about astrology’s “pseudo-rationality” and its horrible incentive to “provide gratifications to aggressive urges on the level of the imaginary.” Naturally this means that people who “choose” astrology possess a lack of what is vaguely called “intellectual integration,” which I guess is depleted most profoundly by the unravelling of the social world.
There is something sustaining, or at least entertaining, about Adorno’s application of a critical seriousness to an enterprise he found so critically unserious. But the idea of closing out the year with such a dense and misanthropic essay is virtually unbearable to me. To remedy this I’m returning to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, which is the first novel I read in 2018. As I revisit its pages, I am struck by how impossible it feels to capture all that Long Division does and is, in a matter of sentences. The book has time travel and romance and confrontations with race, sexuality, and gender, all of which are often cleverly introduced through the guise of satire, or wordplay. Moments of humor masterfully become moments of critique. For 2019 we should take note of how Laymon treats the realms of history and language with a cautionary capaciousness. Within the vastness of both there is always the threat that the reprehensible and catastrophic will multiply or mutate — and yet there remains room and potential enough to create something better.
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I began my reading year with a book both beautiful and sad for me: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson, whose memorial I had the honor of earlier attending. The recollections by family and friends who knew him as more than an author reminded me of our collective loss on his passing. I’d only been one of the many devotees of Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams, and this final short story collection, so electrically alive from characters’ animal struggle to keep precarious balance, made me feel the loss even more. The book’s titular story ends with this line: “Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.” The magical something is what I think I’m looking for every time I open up a book.
I found some semblance of that magic in several books I read this year. Sometimes it came from alchemies created from dislocation and alienation. Eula Bliss’s essay collection Notes from No-Man’s Land unsettled me with its juxtapositions, each a portrait of unequal prices paid in American society. She awed me, weaving historical facts on telephone pole proliferation and lynching; custody trial accounts and recollections of black and white childhood dolls; and Bliss’s own experiences of belonging and eroded community.
Sometimes, the distance between headlines and lived experience that a book could collapse moved me. I read Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli around the time that immigrant families seeking asylum were being cruelly separated. Luiselli’s use of immigration questions as structure lets human stories supersede the bureaucratic form meant to reduce and process away humanity. What was happening in another presidential administration shed light on the current and, in turn, re-clarified the absurd cruelty for me, a far luckier immigrant from another age who still remembers day-long, labyrinthine lines outside of immigration offices, waiting in the Florida heat for nothing to get resolved—come another day, next.
And sometimes meanderings through the vastness of our world did the trick. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, defies any insistence on single-minded narrative propulsion and character-building. Instead, the book builds on fragmentary digressions, possibly fictional and not quite nonfictional, morphing from one theme to the next across history and space. A meditation on the nature of storytelling leads to a calculation of the collective height of trees used to build a dreamed town. An interstitial mentioning an old Maori mourning tradition of preserving loved one’s heads follows a son’s letter imploring an Austrian emperor to release the stuffed corpse of his African father and precedes the continuing story of an obsessed anatomical preservationist. Tokarczuk has compared the form she has woven in this book to constellations. It’s ultimately the reader who gazes at the otherwise empty dark to take in the glow of these narratives and find the shapes of humanly creatures and myths.
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Welcome to what we hope will be a new (semi-regular!) feature, in which the Millions fam opens up about the books on our nightstands (and desks, and floors – seriously these things are like kudzu). As you might expect, it’s an eclectic mix about which we have ~strong feelings~.
From haikus to a macroeconomic treatise on American industrialism – with lots of novels and story collections in between, of course – here’s what we’re reading:
Jacob Lambert: I just finished Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush, and hated it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. What a pretentious disaster. Up next is Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, which hopefully won’t make me want to stick my head in the oven.
Tess Malone: I haven’t read one book by a straight white man this year, but I’m breaking the streak for Rob Delaney’s memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.
Edan Lepucki: I recently finished The Barbarous Coast by pulp L.A. Noir writer Ross MacDonald and I am #blessed to be an early reader of Susan Straight’s new novel (!!!)…editors can email me if they want deets on that masterpiece.
Sonya Chung: A little past halfway through Jung Yun’s Shelter [Ed. note: which was selected by our own Edan Lepucki as one of her most anticipated books of this year], I had to put to down. It’s an important book, and I’m sad that it had to be written, and Yun writes skillfully and unflinchingly. All that. But, it’s a hard story, and I needed a break. Will return to it surely.
I am on to Mat Johnson’s Pym and Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife for the long weekend. Yes, I started two novels simultaneously. Both take place in academic communities but could not be more different from each other; so somehow, it works to alternate between them.
I also always have a book of essays going on the side. Currently, John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket. (Film Forum has a documentary about Berger playing now; don’t miss it, New Yorkers! The final scene is priceless.)
Bill Morris: At the moment I’m reading two books that could not be more unalike, but which are fabulous in their own ways: James McBride’s exploration of James Brown’s life and its meaning, Kill ‘Em and Leave; and Robert J. Gordon’s work of macroeconomics, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which examines the astonishing burst of changes in everyday life from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
Anne Yoder: Unbeknownst to me ’til now, my to-read pile is afflicted by planetary influence. I’m currently reading Kyle Coma-Thompson’s Night in the Sun – its story “27-B” contains an appallingly beautiful description of death at 30,000 feet, the stewardess holding the body back upon landing and yet: “The head moving in the most grotesque way, a sodden sunflower crown wagging on its rigid tough stem.”
Nick Moran: I was in Florida this weekend, so I’ve been revisiting Jai Alai Books’s essential poetry collections, Eight Miami Poets and Suicide by Jaguar. Amidst Miami’s Zika outbreak, I’ve developed a fresh appreciation for Dave Landsberger’s South Beach Haiku #3: “My legs fit perfectly in my pants. / My leg bones fit perfectly in my legs— / shorts are for tourists.”
Dear Mr. M has an elegant structure that weaves together many strands, but one is about man named Herman who moves into the apartment below and stalks a famous writer, Mr. M. After spying, opening his mail, talking to his wife and kid, Herman finally approaches Mr. M under the guise of being a journalist wanting an interview.
I just interviewed Koch. In my emails, I addressed Koch as “Dear Mr. K” and signed off as “Herman.” I don’t know if he finds it funny or creepy, but no cease and desist order yet.
Hannah Gersen: the book on my nightstand that I have slowly been working through is Consolations by David Whyte, which is a beautiful book that gives definitions for everyday words, elaborating on their spiritual and philosophical meanings. It starts with the word “alone” and ends with “work.” It’s a quiet, thoughtful book, a really good way to start or end the day.
Kirstin Butler: I’ve been on both an essay- and thriller-reading tear lately, probably because those are the two things i’m working on myself ! In the former category I’ve gone for contemporary classics – John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land – with one old standby mixed in, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World. I will read anything McPhee you put in front of me. As for the latter genre, I’ve discovered I’m a pretty tough customer; I was excited to read The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich (nom de plume for the writing team of Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment), but after one too many times of yelling ‘oh my god don’t fall for it’ at the heroine, had to give it up. If any readers have good thriller recs please get @ me on Twitter!
Nicholas Ripatrazone: I’m currently reading Ghostland by Colin Dickey, due out 10/4. It’s a creepy, smart trek through America’s haunted sites. He investigates how “ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way.”
Oh and by the way: What you’re reading right now looks pretty awesome too.
(Image via Alie Edwards)
The LA Times has a review up of Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Innoculation, an “elegant, intelligent and very beautiful book, which occupies a space between research and reflection.” We covered the collection in our Second-Half 2014 Book Preview, and Biss’s first book, Notes from No Man’s Land, has appeared in several Millions pieces over the last few years.
Now that The Empathy Exams, the thoughtful, brave, and honest essay collection by Leslie Jamison, is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s probably a good time to start my bragging: Leslie and I smoked weed together at Iowa. I bring this up not (only) to embarrass Leslie (and me), but also because one particular memory of her from that era remains distinct in my mind, and seems appropriate given that her work is so deeply felt and observed, beautiful as poetry and as probing as a deep sea satellite.
In the memory, our mutual friend A. has just gotten us high. He is a former journalist and a budding playwright as well as a fiction writer, and so social engagements with him carry with them a certain intensity, as if we’re not just hanging out, but being interviewed and excavated, the performative elements of our personalities both applauded and questioned. I cannot get enough of hanging out with A. Once we’re all rightly stoned, he asks me and Leslie how we might define the word dramaturge. In my memory, my brain stutters and stalls like a rusted old car; I am wishing for some cinnamon bread. “It’s…uh…,” I say, “…like…um…someone who helps a theatre company?” A. nods at me (with pity, I recall), and then turns to Leslie, whose arms are crossed. She’s squinting. Leslie is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and when I am high this frightens me a little. “I like to think of a dramaturge as a kind of translator between the text and the performers.” She goes on to describe the art of play production with such elegance and intelligence that I can’t help but feel humbled, jealous, and inspired.
This is how I felt reading The Empathy Exams. In a world where there are a hundred online quizzes along the lines of “Ten Things Not To Say to ___________” and twice as many confessional essays that read like ineffectual diary entries, it’s energizing to find a collection like Leslie’s, which engages seriously with issues of pain, suffering, and human connection and interaction. She is a translator for experiences I’ve had but could not find the right — or any — words for.
She was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.
The Millions: I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the essay form. Can you recommend 3-5 books for a reader who wants to immerse herself in this genre? How have these books informed your own work?
Leslie Jamison: Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard: Essays about boys, sure — and even a disintegrating marriage with one of them — but also about violence and squirrels and weird attachments that show up with unexpected intensity in unexpected places. Beard takes her pain seriously but is also funny, which I like. “The Fourth State of Matter” (about a mass shooting at the University of Iowa) is one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read.
The White Album, Joan Didion: A classic. But whatever. It’s important, and so good. There are meaningful flashes of personal crisis and reaction amidst larger meditations on the chaos and ferment of the 1960s: Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the California Water Authority. Didion takes on the world without trying to solve it; she honors the mess.
This is Running for Your Life, Michelle Orange: Imagine a woman who writes an essay about Ethan Hawke’s face but also goes to Hawaii to report on the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association. This collection is cultural criticism that’s roomy enough to hold surprising pockets of deep feeling, and sturdy enough to launch rigorous intellectual excursions.
Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss: These essays weave together history and private interior life in extraordinary ways. It’s just electric to watch Biss’s mind and heart work through difficult questions about race and American identity — her writing is lyrical and associative but always charged by ethical concern. A fragmented history of the telephone poll becomes a charged history of racial violence. Biss asks her readers to be fearless and open and willing to encounter difficulty.
Some of these collections are more confessional than others, but all of them explore loneliness in ways that feel generative rather than just deflating, or solipsistic, and they offer visions of the ways that private feeling can charge and inflect the way we see the public world. Didion bleeds private and public in ways that have been formative for me. Orange is tender with the absurdities of the world. Biss thinks about guilt and privilege in ways that feel invested but don’t get utterly exhausting. Beard is brave enough to summon the past — and live there for long stretches of time — without apology.
I promise I read men, too. And even admire them.
TM: Maybe because I met you in grad school, when we were both (ostensibly) fiction writers, I’m curious about your omnivorous writing life. How does fiction writing differ from essay writing for you — in process, in aesthetic goals, in voice and style?
LJ: Essays tend to happen in extended bursts — a few weeks, a few months — while the novels I’ve written (one completed, mostly discarded attempts) were long-haul treks. Even the essays that took several years to write and re-write were largely generated in bursts, and then revised in bursts; I sink deep into something, but the horizon of surfacing is never entirely out of sight.
In terms of big aesthetic goals, I think there’s a lot of overlap between my fiction and my nonfiction — or at least, in my aspirations for what both might do: go deep into consciousness (whether an imaginary character’s, a real person’s, or my own) and excavate moments of surprise and awe and tenderness and hurt in that consciousness, and in its interactions with the world and with others. But that excavation happens so differently in fiction and nonfiction.
In my nonfiction — especially reported pieces — more of the work happens away from the computer: getting on a plane, recording an interview, exploring a place and writing down everything I see. These parts of the process — that feel exploratory and experimental and tactile — are part of what drew me to essays, offered a relief from a flailing second novel that had started to feel claustrophobic and contrived.
Nonfiction makes me nervous in so many ways that fiction doesn’t: I get nervous about interviews (standard-issue holdovers from social anxieties of a younger self); I get nervous about upsetting the people I write about; I get nervous — of course, and I hope productively — about getting things wrong. All these kinds of nervousness make me sweat, but they also keep things electric.
TM: In a piece for Publishers Weekly, “How to Write a Personal Essay,” you write about how personal experiences sometimes don’t fit into a larger piece: “I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it — the faint stink of forced correspondence.” You mention a “purgatory file” where you keep “every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself — if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.” I wonder about this file. How extensive is it? I feel a longing for a Leslie Jamison scrap-heap of cast off material, maybe because I feel like you’d do something intriguing and thoughtful with it. Have you ever thought about building something from the shards alone?
LJ: Amazing question! Totally a question from one writer to another. Do you have a purgatory file, too? Do you call it something else? I actually have a bunch of these files, attached to separate projects. And yes, I have tried to work with the shards. There is one period of my life that I’ve tried to write about over and over again but never managed to capture, and my latest attempt was a kind of meta-essay that gathered together all the previous attempts — everything from early diary entries to old term papers, but mainly scraps of discarded essays from the past ten years — and basically making a collage of excerpts, all distinguished by font. I wanted to give a sense of the layers, the ongoing process of returning to something that’s been hard to narrate. I wanted all the fragments to give a sense of difficulty but also desire — the deep, ongoing desire to honor this part of my life.
TM: When I read these essays, I kept thinking about your inclination to problematize: your experiences, your feelings, essay writing itself. If that sounds like it has a negative connotation, that’s not my intention — I admire your striving to see everything from numerous sides, to investigate your own desires and motivations, and to remind your reader that the essay form should be interrogated and upended. Was that a goal with this collection, or did that just…happen? Do you think it’s the writer’s — or the essayist’s — responsibility to problematize?
LJ: If “problematize” means regarding a subject from multiple angles, confessing the bias intrinsic to my subjective position, and questioning my own assumptions — then I suppose there’s no way I wouldn’t; it’s just the texture of how my mind approaches anything. And insofar as the essays are approaching a central subject — though they all come at empathy from different angles — they’re also looking to find the complications and perils embedded in what we might be tempted to view in simple terms: empathy as unequivocal good, unequivocal gift.
But I’ve always thought of this kind of problematizing as a fundamentally recuperative gesture: if we see something as fully as possible, in all its flaws and troubles, we can pursue it and embrace it more fully as well — there aren’t secrets or dangers festering under the surface. I’m wary of saying that writers have an obligation to do anything in particular — most often, you’ll find someone who doesn’t do whatever thing so beautifully that they redeem its absence — but it’s hard to imagine an essay that would be satisfying without complexity, and it’s hard to imagine complexity without some version of what we’re calling problematizing: the negative capability of holding multiple possibilities at once.
A quick note on upending the essay form: In all honesty, I think that the “essay” genre has already been taken in so many fascinating directions — followed down so many engaging formal back roads — that it would be disingenuous and a bit hubristic to claim that I’d upended anything: with the essay, stylistic innovation is more like continuing the tradition than upending it.
TM: Olivia Laing gave The Empathy Exams a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. She had one quibble, however: “These are the essays of a working journalist. Most have been previously published in magazines like Vice, Harper’s and Oxford American. Because they all work to some degree over the narrow field of personal experience, they inevitably turn up the same items of autobiography, perpetually introduced as if for the first time. This has a strange, unwitting effect in a book so preoccupied with the registering of and response to distress — it makes Jamison sound self-preoccupied, too caught up in her own stories to recognize that the reader has encountered them before.” I don’t quote this back to you to be cruel, but because I feel like you must have recognized the repetition in this book. It seems to me that the book’s echoes of pain, the repeated acknowledgment of it, is part of the collection’s project: the emphasis and reminder of selfhood and of pain that is revisited but not necessarily resolved. It feels like grief, in this way. Am I just bullshitting here? What’s your take on it?
LJ: I don’t think you’re bullshitting! In fact, I’d love to quote you on that. I do mean for the collection to acknowledge the ways that certain kinds of pain must be revisited without necessarily getting resolved. This certainly happens in conversations and in life. I’d like to think that each time I return to any of these “same items of autobiography,” I’m doing something different with it. For example, I mention several times that I was punched in the face by a stranger in Nicaragua — one essay invokes an obscure literary theorist to try to tell the story of this assault in terms of traditional Russian folktales; another uses the assault to describe what it felt like to read James Agee for the first time. I don’t tend to think of autobiography as a finite arsenal of weapons that can get deployed at various moments: here is where I whip out my abortion, my abusive relationship, my divorce — so much as a set of inexhaustible resources; each story from my past — or anyone’s — holding a thousand possible meanings, a thousand possible slants. But I do find it fascinating whenever anyone responds to the collection by suggesting its preoccupation with its own wounds — not because I disagree (I am preoccupied with my own wounds) but because I disagree with leveling this kind of accusation: why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with our own hurt? We should just do our best to let these preoccupations spur us into productive kinds of attention and action. And the final essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is about precisely this kind of accusation — what it means to shame women for “wallowing” in pain — so it always interests me to see that phenomenon enacted in responses to the book.
TM: There are a couple of comic moments in this book when you mention the way your writing was received when you were a student at the Workshop (for instance, you describe how another student suggests during workshop that you give your main character a job). I’m wondering if you could talk about the workshop process a little — what it offered you and what it lacked. Sharing work for a group critique requires one to be vulnerable, but also, maybe, defiant. What do you think?
LJ: I have a lot of faith and trust in the workshop process, largely because it’s a model that can absorb and even articulate its own limitations — can be dynamic, adaptive, try to get better. I think it’s a total gift and privilege to have a roomful of people who care about writing pay attention to yours, and offer feedback — but I think it only works if you can set strong internal boundaries around how much that feedback matters. In other words: don’t let the voices crowd too close, or get too loud.
At my first workshop at Iowa, the wonderful Elizabeth McCracken told us that it would be a useful workshop if we incorporated 20% of what we heard — that didn’t mean we were being arrogant, to “disregard” the other 80%, just that part of our job was to sift through the feedback, rather than feeling like it was our task or obligation to incorporate all of it. That was liberating for me, and changed my sense of what a workshop was or how oppressive it had to be. I love teaching workshops because you get so many different voices in chorus. I do think it can be useful — especially with longer projects — to get some distance from feedback for a while, so you can get to know a project — develop a private relationship with that project and follow it somewhere before you expose it to the input of others. I wrote my novel entirely outside the workshop system, after I was done with Iowa, and I think that was important to getting a certain momentum going. I was riding the dream of the thing (sometimes nightmare) without interruptions from other sensibilities. I had to get the whole thing down before I was ready to hear any craft advice from anyone.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
LJ: Easy. Just finished it this week. Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. It’s full of harm and care and crisis and bright light and so much filth, and so much beauty, and so much heart.
In the opening to Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes an Italian militiaman he meets in Barcelona, “a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders.” The militiaman is trying to read a map one of the officers has unrolled across a table, but the militiaman doesn’t know how to read a map. When someone makes a remark that reveals Orwell is a foreigner, the militiaman turns to Orwell and questions him:
I answered in my bad Spanish: “No, Inglés. Y tú?”
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.
Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that “gulf of language and tradition” and meet her subjects “in utter intimacy” like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico.
Every day, news reports on drone strikes, healthcare, and domestic surveillance show us that how we view each other isn’t an issue that’s been settled. In an early essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison visits a conference for people with a condition known as Morgellons disease, which causes “sores, itching, fatigue, pain, and something called formication, the sensation of crawling insects.” A distinct feature of the condition is the appearance of “strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” The most distinct feature of the condition, however, is that it might not be a condition at all. The CDC thinks that Morgellons is an example of what’s known as a “delusional infestation” — meaning it might just be in people’s heads.
For a book about pain, empathy, and illness, Susan Sontag — author of such classic texts as Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others — should be a touchstone, and she is. Sontag pops up in essay after essay, like a methodological whack-a-mole. But while Sontag’s writings seem to drill from one level of analysis to the next, Jamison’s work functions more like an archeologist’s brush, exposing the layers of narrative and critique until a larger picture becomes visible.
Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which showcased her gift for lyrical prose and creating nuanced relationships between her characters. The Empathy Exams, like previous winners of Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize, such as Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, isn’t just a collection of personal essays. Jamison uses the narrative and the critical together to interrogate the idea of empathy itself. Seemingly disparate essays on a grueling ultra-marathon in Tennessee, the notion of sentimentality, and the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three work together to probe at empathy from multiple angles. The collection’s first essay, “The Empathy Exams” details Jamison’s time as a medical actor:
My job is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.
Even in seemingly small word choices, we can see Jamison unpacking the notion of pain. She’s “fluent” in her diseases; illness isn’t a binary, but a spectrum with degrees of mastery. Some of the medical students examining Jamison get nervous, while others “rattle through the checklist for depression like a list of things they need to get at the grocery store.” Her descriptions are clear and direct — the kind of prose that Orwell practiced and admired.
“Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” Jamison notes. Throughout the book, we can see that she also negotiates this balance, such as when she talks to the attendees at the Morgellons conference. Jamison’s empathy, too, is perched between gift and invasion, but her perch helps her make sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain.
At the end of “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison explores the ambiguity she feels about her trip to the Morgellons conference:
I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.
Leslie Jamison is a different kind of listener. She’s one willing to implicate herself and ask the tough questions about her (and our) capacity to understand each other. Jamison sees her subjects as similar to herself, but — even more importantly — she’s aware that she’s seeing her subjects as similar to herself. That bit of intellectual maneuvering lets her both experience empathy and examine it at the same time.
Orwell refused to shoot a half-dressed enemy soldier trying to hold his pants up as he ran. “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’” he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us — in many ways — what empathy means. They show us how we become, as Orwell wrote, “fellow-creatures.”
The National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last night and the hardware keeps piling up for Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall has already taken home the Booker Prize (and is in the running for the Rooster). Mantel’s book has also held a spot in our Top Ten of late.
In the non-fiction category, the prize went to The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. In the criticism category, the prize went to Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which was endorsed by both Nick Flynn and Cristina Henríquez in our Year in Reading last year.
Of the many books I enjoyed this year, the ones that stuck with me the most were all nonfiction, not my usual arena for reading. Of those, the one book I read in 2009 that I haven’t stopped thinking about and that awed me in a way that made me want to ask more of myself both as a writer and as a person was a volume called Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss. These are essays about race, but they are far more honest and thoughtful than the treatment that topic usually inspires.
The first piece, which begins as a history lesson about the humble telephone pole and swiftly turns into the darker history of lynchings from those same poles, took my breath away. Every essay after that made me stop, made me think, made me rethink, made me reread, made me question, and made me see. I found I was dogearing nearly every other page, scribbling in the margins. The book is as graceful and serious as any I’ve read not only this year, but in recent memory, which, despite the gravity of the subject matter, made me feel unexpectedly hopeful about the direction in which the world is headed.
All three of these books, from the past year, are similar only in that each wrestles with daily existence in ways that have startled me, made me rethink everything I had done up to that moment, and made me reevaluate how I want to move forward. Reading each of these books is an active, rather than a passive, experience. In each I have found moments—several moments—where something I’ve never seen conjured in language before somehow rises up, before my eyes. How each writer—a poet turned essayist (Biss), a poet channeling Ginsberg with long, rangy meditations (Zucker), and a novelist arriving at his first memoir (Elliott)—arrived at these moments is both mysterious and seemingly simple—each picked up a thread of thought (racism, motherhood, murder), an image (telephone poles, zapruder films, adderall), and followed them, or, rather, allowed themselves to be led, into an unknown place. Each of these books is thrilling, in their plainspokeness and in their brilliance.