I’m having a particularly hard week recovering from an unexpected surgery. After things quieted down and my mom flew home and all that was left to do was rest and recover, I spent a day on the couch watching Netflix. Something I often do when convalescing. But by the end of the day—un-showered and bleary eyed—I didn’t feel any better. Possibly, I felt worse.
This bleak post-TV-binge feeling could have been residual guilt associated with growing up in a house where my mom called the television the boob-tube and my dad regularly told me that watching TV made the muscles in my brain atrophy. Whatever the case, I knew that I needed to find a more life-giving form of distraction to get me through this business of getting better.
Spending money generally gives me a little pick-me-up. So, cue retail therapy married to a pastime my father thoroughly endorses and I made my first post-surgery outing to my favourite bookstore, McNally Robinson.
I bought three books:
- Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham,
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, and
- Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose (to sooth a grammar teacher’s guilty conscience over missing a week of classes) by Constance Hale (complete with big fat delicious chapters dedicated to each of the parts of speech!!!).
While I haven’t cracked the grammar book yet, I have spent the last two days working through the books of essays with equal delight.
I have been intrigued by Lena Dunham since I started watching Girls a few seasons back (my TV-guilt comes and goes). So far, I’ve read through the first section “Love and Sex,” which is funny and heart-breaking and raw. Parts of it (particularly a chapter called “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously”) read like stand-up comedy. I could really hear Dunham’s voice (or is it Hannah Horvath’s?) in my head.
Some sections struck me with that feeling of recognition that good writing can evoke, while other experiences were so strange that I felt like I was privy to something I shouldn’t—or wished I didn’t—know.
One particularly difficult chapter called “Barry” opens, “I’m an unreliable narrator.” It goes on to tell about a sexual encounter that may or may not be a rape. While certainly deeply violating, the narrator does not come out and call it a rape, even when it seems clear to those around her that it was.
The whole thing is actually a retelling of the encounter with Barry. The first version in “Girls & Jerks”* is much less sinister. Coming back to the event and telling it in a different way calls up interesting questions about the narratives that we tell others and ourselves about our lives. There is something revealing about writing a couple of different versions of one event.
In coming back to it and working it over again in a longer essay, Dunham reminded my of those stories or events in my own life that I come back to again and again mining for truth or meaning. Though she claims to be unreliable, there is something honest and refreshing about being brought along as she plays this event over and over—leaving it for a while, then coming back to have another think about it after her perspective has shifted.
I had read some of Joan Didion’s essays in the past, but have been wanting to read more of her work for some time. Her essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem are interesting and beautifully written with immediacy, detail, and self-restraint, always showing never telling.
The title essay paints a poignant picture of San Francisco in the spring of 1967. She builds the essay on short vignettes: interviews with teenagers, car rides, failed plans, observing people on LSD. But instead of the intoxicating narrative of the Beats, the whole affair is banal.
Other essays chronicle interviews with well-known figures or delve into her personal experience. All are written with a sharp sense of timing and a deep trust of her reader.
I’m not sure why I was so drawn to two books of personal essays on this particular visit to the bookstore. But I’ve really enjoyed bouncing between these two women’s voices. Both have a way of observing the world that is fresh and true.
In an interview with Jian Gomeshi, Dunham talks about Hannah Horvath’s often quoted line: “I am the voice of a generation.” Dunham is quick to point out that Hannah says that while high on drugs, but Dunham goes on (somewhat resignedly) to accept that that is the line that is going to follow her around. While not accepting that she is ‘The’ voice, she accepts that she is ‘A’ voice.
Didion too stands as a voice for her generation—a definitive way of looking at and writing about the world.
Looking back after two days on the couch engrossed in their words and their worlds, I am better off. Though still bleary eyed and un-showered, the double dose of retail therapy and reading therapy has left me feeling slightly better than before.
*Side note: “Girls & Jerks” opens with a quotation from “On Self-Respect,” one of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.