Thursday, September 27, 2012

Some Fine Messes: Katie Roiphe's "In Praise Of Messy Lives"


My previous readings of Katie Roiphe's essays and criticisms are fairly limited in number, but the pieces affected me enough to clearly remember her over two years after I first cited her. In analyzing (and daring to critique) the literary styles of certain male novelists, Roiphe and Meghan O'Rourke came under intense critiques themselves in 2009 and 2010, stemming from O'Rourke's questioning the popularity of Jonathan Franzen, in which she cited Roiphe's "The Naked and the Conflicted." Having recently completed In Praise Of Messy Lives, a recently published collection of Roiphe's essays, I learned that she is no stranger to a lot of other jabs, arguments, and controversies. Agree or disagree with her stands, it's admirable to find that she counters her critics not with name-calling, but confidence and further writings. Also, as much as I devour essay compilations, I've found that category to be rife with male writers, and reading Roiphe's essays was a great way to shake this up, at least in regard to my own reading habits. She doesn't view herself as a divisive figure in the literary world, but acknowledges that her opinions tend to have extremely intense backlashes. In her introduction, she cites a response letter written after the publication of "The Naked and the Conflicted:"

'To the Editor:
Not only are you contributing to the total annihilation of the literary culture, but also to the destruction of our civilization. Think about it.'

Roiphe writes beautifully in her personal essays, with the opening selection detailing how people treated her in the wake of her divorce. Her friends and associates seemed to be carefully dancing around the issue, or treating her much too delicately. However, her occasional asides into personal reflection and assumptions can give the reader pause (I say this in reference to myself, since I try to elevate discourse above the "angry commenter" she explores later in the book):

"I once wrote an entire book about how one shouldn't reach for easy feminist interpretations of the world. And yet, even I can sense the residual sexism at work: while a woman outside of marriage is still considered a vulnerable and troubling figure, a man is granted a higher measure of autonomy. My husband, for instance, hasn't been receiving quite this level of solicitude. I don't think we are nearly as quick to assume that divorced men are falling into a life of despondency. I don't think that we are as concerned about what will happen to them, that we are filled with the same exquisite worry over their situation. We assume they will marry again, and until they do, we assume they're fine (Roiphe 6-7)."

Based on my own experience of men in the process of divorce, I can say, without giving away too many personal details, that divorce can be just as strenuous, the reactions can be just as similar, and many people are filled with the same exquisite worry. Roiphe is much too keen a writer to make flippant generalizations about the outside world, so I know this is based on her experiences, whereas my own experiences are opposite what she describes. Again, her writing is beautiful, but this specific passage jumped out at me as something I disagreed with; but one can admire the style without fully agreeing with the substance.

Her "voice" has a way of changing depending on the subject, but not in a distracting way. Later in the collection, she shares a college memory of sleeping with the romantic interest of one of her close friends. The essay feels like a short story, but one never gets the feeling that she's embellishing or softening any of the tense details. She's honest about her emotions at the time, and her exploration of the set-up and the aftermath is philosophical in its own way. She doesn't present any explicit, physical details of the encounters with the boy, but her full honesty in other passages creates an intensity beyond a lurid sexual adventure. The essay is not about sex, but about friendship and the workings of the teenage mind, minds intellectually but not emotionally advanced (or, to use a better word, experienced).

"As it turned out, my efforts to explain myself bothered Stella to no end. I think, in retrospect, that all she wanted me to do was accept responsibility. I think the whole conversation about what happened exhausted her. Who cared why or how from her point of view? Who cared what particular frailties of character led me to be vulnerable to this sort of thing? What matters in the end is the irrevocable act. Even if I was able, through sheer force of will, to create a little ambiguity in a wholly unambiguous situation, there was something insulting, finally, about doing it. My impulse, it seemed, was to take the whole thing apart like a car motor, to take out the pieces and look at them together; of course, if I could engage her in this process, if I could get her to look at each one of these oily mechanisms with me, then I would be part of the way to regaining our friendship. It is the two of us doing something together, however awful. Stella, in her own way, sensed this and refused (Roiphe 57)."

More than a couple of the essays in In Praise Of Messy Lives are witty dressing downs of modern urban parenting. As the mother of two children in New York, Roiphe constantly encounters worrisome parents, an onslaught of conflicting parenting books and advice, and an emphasis on safety and structure that goes beyond logic. Roiphe never criticizes parents for wanting the best for their children, but she addresses the sometimes insane extremes. Today, it sometimes feels like kids aren't allowed to be kids, and while I don't have any of my own, my work in bookselling has exposed me to the sheer number of books, as well as the parenting styles of upper-class Lincoln Park people. Roiphe's explorations are comical and sometimes incredible, but even through her opinions, she lets the examples speak for themselves.

"As their children get a little bit older, and slightly beyond the range of constant obsessive monitoring, homework offers parents another fertile opportunity to be involved, i.e., immersed. I can recall my own mother vaguely calling upstairs 'Have you done your homework?' but I cannot recall her rolling up her sleeves to work side by side with me cutting out pictures of rice paddies for a project about Vietnam, or monitoring how many pages of Wuthering Heights I had read. One mother told me about how her seven-year-old, at one of New York's top private schools, received an essay assignment asking how his 'life experience' reflected Robert Frost's line in 'The Road Not Taken': 'I took the one less traveled by.' And of course, that would be a question calling out for the parent writing it herself, since the seven-year-old's 'life experience has not as of yet thrown up all that many roads (Roiphe 194-195)."


The sections of the book that I enjoyed the most were Roiphe's literary criticisms and textual analyses. Her explorations of Joan Didion and Susan Sontag are both textual and personal, with references to specific passages as well as their meaning in the bigger pictures. I'm more familiar with Didion's writing than I am with Sontag, but, as I mentioned via Twitter the other day, Roiphe succeeds admirably with what I feel is a basic requirement of contemporary literary criticism: she manages to illuminate and educate with the texts I haven't read, instead of assuming that the reader is familiar with them. I've encountered essays on Susan Sontag many times, but I still haven't read her works. Thanks to Roiphe's pieces, I know much more about her life and writing style than I did before. Roiphe digs deeply into her literary explorations and manages to expose some very intriguing arguments. What started as a review of a biography of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's daughter, becomes a look at the biography market in general, especially biographies of women associated with famous male artists.

"Of course, the biographies of great men's women lend themselves to all kinds of romanticizing. It is, in these hefty, attractive books, with their dramatic, sepia covers, enormously glamorous to be mad. Had Lucia Joyce simply married, and stayed in Paris and taught dance to eager young protegees, and pursued her art in a modest way, and grown fat and happy and had a couple of children in a little apartment with a view of the river, there would be no Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Roiphe 83-84)."

In Praise Of Messy Lives follows a sort of formula that seems to be prevalent in all essay collections by established authors: there are a seemingly equal number of pages devoted to personal essays, literary criticisms, and intelligent investigations of pop culture. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy Roiphe's takes on Mad Men, Facebook, and Twitter, but these sometimes feel like they're supposed to be pleasant diversions from more complex material. From Roiphe to Jonathan Lethem to Zadie Smith, one can almost feel the paths turning throughout the course of a book, an almost subliminal "okay, enough with that heavy stuff, let's have some fun." But, these authors can find areas not often discussed online or on blogs. I'm not critiquing the authors, but rather the way essay collections are constrained in presenting diverse material. Nonetheless, Roiphe's take on Facebook, for example, is spot on and hilarious:

"Many, especially slightly older, teenagers seem to like to parody the Facebook norms even as they embrace them. The idea is that you are pretending to speak in the common language of Facebook, and are in fact speaking in that common language, but are aware of how unoriginal you are being; so when you write 'omg' you are ironically commenting on the use of 'omg,' but when other people write 'omg' they are seriously saying 'oh my God.' This very delicate balancing act is artful, in its way. Your character is now employing the cliches of the genre, but with satire, or maybe that would be satirrrrrrrrrre (Roiphe 230)."

To disregard (or ignore) my previous assessment, the "essay collection formula" does work well with Katie Roiphe, especially given her public image. Her essays acknowledge controversy without inviting it. She's honest and seems welcoming of constructive criticism that almost never comes, replaced by assumptions and nasty assessments made by online commenters. So seeing her balance between pieces that have received intense reactions and seeing her use biting comedy to illuminate her points is a formula unto itself. She never apologizes for her opinions, but also knows that some topics are universal. In Praise of Messy Lives is a invitation to educational writings with the understanding that you'll either agree or disagree with the author's assessments. Who knows? Maybe I'll go to some of her back list works and find writings that I completely disagree with. But, just going by this latest collection, I find that I agree with her more than I disagree, and this is a rare example of knowing a bit more about the author's personal life helping to put the essays in context. I've read some of the sneering, embarrassing insults directed her way, and I admire her way of defending herself with a quick wit, rather than giving into the easy temptation of stooping down to the level of personal attacks. There are many topics and passages I've left untouched, but I've explored enough to give potential readers a taste of what to expect. These pieces won't change the mind of anyone who dislikes her writing, but there's just the right amount of challenging material to foster discussions and further studies. And really, no matter what your opinions of her opinions, isn't that the ultimate goal?

Work Cited:
Roiphe, Katie. In Praise Of Messy Lives. Copyright 2012 by Katie Roiphe.

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