Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert 279 pages
Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession by Julie Powell 306 pages
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman 290 pages
Let me start out by saying that I didn’t want to, nor did I plan to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Committed. This is douchey of me, because I have to admit, I read Eat Pray Love and liked it up until the last 50 pages or so. And, Elizabeth Gilbert, at least in a past life, is (was) a very good writer. Her profiles for Spin, Rolling Stone etc, and her short stories are quite good. Really, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this book other than its mildly entertaining, and despite a rocky start, Gilbert’s writing is just so damn likable and charming that it kind of sucks you in. And the subject matter: it’s not stupid, really, but nor is very intelligent. It just kind of is. Like Elizabeth Gilbert just kind of is. She’s a nebulous blonde American woman of a certain age that other nebulous American women are drawn to like flies.
Julie Powell is slightly different but still somehow more of the same. I’ve managed to dodge Julie and Julia, haven’t read it, haven’t seen the movie, probably won’t. But whatever weakness compelled me to pick up Committed also compelled me to pick up Cleaving. Cleaving is what it says it is: a story of marriage, butchery and obsession. I guess I should give kudos to Powell for being so unlikable in a field filled with Elizabeth Gilbert’s, but I don’t want to. She’s actually boringly unlikable. Not at all salacious and corruptingly unlikable which I had hoped for. Still, not a badly written book. The first two hundred pages were not bad, especially the parts about learning to be a butcher. The other parts bothered me, though, the parts that saw this woman being reduced to a snivelling, obsessed, whining puddle of sap every time her lover stopped talking to her. I know that Powell would say that she is making some kind of post-feminist point – “Oh the feminists hate me because I’m showing weakness, look at how judgmental they are!” – we’re not supposed to be comfortable witnessing a woman do this to herself. And rightfully, she’s not asking for sympathy. But still, bottom line, I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, nor that it was particularly well written as a whole, but meh, it was kind of interesting.
Now, for the good part. Not knowing to expect, I bought The Possessed by Elif Batuman on the basis of a book review on Salon. I love this book. It’s like Anne Carson without all the bullshit – brilliant, enigmatic, laugh-out-loud funny, so so so smart, and just all around fantastic. The book really is about Russian books and the people who read them, largely grad students and professors, like Batuman herself. Graduate schools, especially prestigious ones have an unflattering reputation of being intellectual circle jerks for the most part, and Batuman doesn’t shy away from that in the book. She initially wanted to write a novel and so went out to a rainy writer’s colony on Cape Cod to do it. She didn’t like the people or the weather and so went to Stanford instead. (The jealous part of me wishes like hell those were MY two options and I totally want to hate her). I can’t hate her, though. Her writing is just way too good. A sample, taken from her essay on Saint Peterburg:
The ice palace had no clear purpose, but many unclear purposes. It was a torture device, a science experiment, an ethnographic museum, a work of art. It was a suspended disaster, a flood momentarily checked, a haunted house, a distorted fairy tale, with its transparent coffin, parodic prince and dwarfs. The ice palace represents the prison house of marriage, the vanity of human endeavour, the dialectic of empire and subject.
Each one of the essays in the book had me both laughing my ass off and googling Chekhov stories or looking for translations of obscure poems by Pushkin. She writes on a trip to Chekhov’s house on the way back to Moscow:
And still life goes on in Chekhov’s garden, where it’s always a fine day for hanging yourself, and somebody somewhere is playing the guitar. Dr. Chekhov, loyal custodian of the human body, you who could look in the ear of an idle man and see an entire universe – where are you now?
I have to admit that part of the reason I like this book so much is that it is not just a memoir. It is a mocking, yet loving record of her time in grad school, but it’s so much more than that too.
I’ve read five memoirs written by women in three months as part of an experiment, and frankly I’m all memoired out. (The two other ones were Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club – apparently the one that started this whole deluge – and Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealey, which was absolutely fantastic). Let me tell you where I stand on this whole thing since I’ve just put myself through Women’s Memoir bootcamp 2010: you can’t just write a memoir about a bad childhood, or being an alcoholic, or a bad divorce, or an affair, or even becoming a butcher. Elif Batuman raised the stakes. Now, not everyone has a Ph.D, but still, you need to find another frame to put around your life story. And I certainly hope Batuman’s book doesn’t open up the gates to a whole series of quirky academic memoirs, although it probably will.
Also, the upshot of this whole project makes me never ever want to write a memoir. I wasn’t planning on it anyway, but now it’s been confirmed. I’m already fairly insufferable as it is, I can’t imagine what a whole other 12-24 months of deep introspection would do to me.