Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Caldwell begins this collection of autobiographical essays by reflecting on her previous collection of autobiographical essays. “The essays in my first collection divulged what most would call TMI,” she writes, followed by a highlight reel blurbing said collection. Contemplation of her last memoir serves as introduction to the current one, which, she warns us, will be a bit different, mainly because it will be informed by more experience.
The liberating thing about publishing an essay collection before you are a fully formed person is that there is nothing to fear. You have no readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds. The bad thing about publishing an essay collection at twenty-five, when the frontal lobe has barely finished developing, is that there is nothing to fear. No readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds.
Now she has some wounds and memories, experiences, fears, and readers. So while there’s some of the juicy revelation of the previous volume—’When we were six years old . . . We’d . . . straddle and hump each other. That’s how I learned to orgasm.”—and some hard-swinging opening lines—“I got a pedicure each time I promised myself I’d stop doing heroin—which is to say, I got pedicures that whole summer.”—there is, here, a double sense both of a life already given the memoir treatment, leaving little left but to reflect on that memoir treatment—“The end of the Buzzfeed article quotes me as saying, ‘I’m O.K. with [the label] bisexual.’ It makes me cringe. I have issues with labels, yet don’t know what to do without them.”—or to push into new revelations—she’s bisexual!—and a life teetering toward the verge of a new kind of self-awareness—like that itch of annoyance at the category of “bisexual,” and a refreshing recognition of privilege regarding her attitude toward sexual identity (though this, to be fair, is nudged upon her by a bystander: “‘Everyone’s gay!’ I said, excited about my newfound sexuality. ‘That’s easy for a straight white woman to say,’” remarks a gay male.)
“When I was writing my first essay collection, I felt no shame. But now, because of the repercussions, or people being able to Google me and read about my acne, my sex life, my family, I feel shame. Who do I think I am to write about myself? Who do I think I am to be so solipsistic?” While I didn’t find a direct answer in these pages, one response to such questions is a kind of ironic remove, a tongue-in-cheek to the narration, a wry edge to the bourgeois measure of time—“You make kale chips. One friend has a heart attack and another has a baby.”—or that species of youthful poverty that is as much romantic aping of poverty as it is actual lack of resources—“I often go into my mom’s or dad’s house with a backpack when they’re not home to steal necessities—I leave with an extra roll of toilet paper, some tea, a can of black beans, and a box of pasta I’m sure they won’t miss.” This tone characterizes, too, Caldwell’s recounting of her brushes with celebrities, the wisdom her straight edge yoga teacher imparts to her classes, and even her hope for this book to inspire, in its readers, “a touch of participation mystique while reading about my sometimes poor decisions.” The attitude feels very ‘90s, at times pleasantly so—a kind of nostalgia trip—at other times more rigidly defensive, as in a moving piece about Caldwell’s friendship with and the untimely death of Maggie Estep:
I have a vague memory of going to a protest. We rarely did anything, so when we did, it felt like an epiphany. I e-mailed the article about the protest the next morning to both my parents, telling them I attended. Was it a general economic protest? my dad wrote back. I didn’t answer the e-mail, I didn’t have a clue what the protest was for.
This reads like, of course—this is—a line from another era. But memoirs are like selfies, or, as back in Estep’s day, photo booth strips: relics of a moment, detritus of a certain kind of world. Escape into Caldwell’s contemplation of her own self may well serve some readers as a tonic for, or at least a momentary respite from, our own circumstances. The volume, complete with reading guide and author interview, seems designed for book clubs and group conversation.
Official Chloe Caldwell Web Site
Official Emily Books Web Site