November 2019

Arts & Letters

Radical ambiguity: Jia Tolentino, Rachel Cusk and Leslie Jamison

By Sarah Holland-Batt

Jia Tolentino. Photograph by Sophie Davidson

The essay collections ‘Trick Mirror’, ‘Coventry’ and ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’ offer doubt and paradoxical thinking in the face of algorithmic perfectionism

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asks in his great poem “Song of Myself”, then answers nonchalantly: “Very well then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Whitman’s ease with the idea that selfhood is fundamentally paradoxical, unruly and plural may seem antithetical to our 21st-century selves, primed as we are to strive towards optimised, calibrated ideals. Apps hound us daily to exercise, sleep and eat in perfect proportion. Algorithms steer us towards partisan content, encouraging us to consolidate our views in lock step with our ideological tribe. Social media incentivises us to perform appealing avatars of ourselves that are wittier, more likeable and attractive than the real thing. The more this narcissistic prism – and, at times, prison – of identity rules us, the less leeway there is to express self-contradiction or ambivalence.

The internet has arguably been the driver of much of this claustrophobic self-regard, but it’s easy to forget that the internet services human desires. We enjoy the overconfident self-caricatures we perform online; we are rewarded for our efforts with endless breadcrumbs of affirmation in the form of retweets and likes. But along with these Pavlovian inducements to perform our ever-perfecting selves comes a downside: the internalisation and adoption of unobtainable standards. There’s always a better self we could be becoming.

It’s no accident that the essay form has experienced a boom that has coincided almost exactly with this hamster wheel of algorithmic aspiration. The essay proffers a bracing antidote to all that careful curation. It offers us Whitmanesque contradiction, slow-motion ambiguity and hesitation: the polyphonous clamouring of the multitude. It offers us doubt.

Several essays from Jia Tolentino’s debut collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (4th Estate) have gone viral – or as viral as it is possible for essays to go – which is perhaps unsurprising given that Tolentino began her career writing clever clickbait for publications The Hairpin and Jezebel. Now 30, Tolentino is a staff writer at The New Yorker ; many of her most popular essays from that publication have made their way – significantly expanded and revised after Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency – into Trick Mirror.

The opening essay, “The I in the Internet”, anchors all the forays that follow by positioning Tolentino’s writing itself as a product of both the best and worst tendencies of the digital age. Tolentino describes how she grew up performing online, beginning with an Angelfire blog at the age of 10, which kindled an appetite for audience approval that culminated in a misguided stint on a reality TV show during her teenage years. Her youthful pursuits remind us of the optimistic advent of the internet, which seemed to herald an era of unparalleled community and human connection. Twenty years on, the “feverish, electric, unlivable hell” of the web has mostly failed to deliver on its promise of empathic engagement with others, supplanting human interaction with corporate panopticons surveilling our every move.

Tolentino is a powerful documentarian of the digital era precisely because she is a millennial internet acolyte, yet she is also discomfited by her proximity to the net’s monetised, optimised “attention economy”. She bemoans the lack of nuance inherent in mass online movements such as #MeToo, with its emphasis on solidarity in victimhood – “as if the crux of feminism was this articulation of vulnerability” – and argues that hashtag feminism frames individual experience as “part of an enormous singular thought” that unhelpfully collapses the distinction between “going on a bad date” and “being violently raped”. The yoke of hyperbolic collective victimhood is not relegated to feminism, of course: it has also produced the men’s rights movement, MAGA rallies and the trolls of Gamergate. Tolentino views trolls as an inevitable counterweight to all the self­righteous virtue signalling: “the rise of trolling, and its ethos of disrespect and anonymity, has been so forceful in part because the internet’s insistence on consistent, approval­worthy identity is so strong.”

If this sounds pessimistic – fatalistic, even – about the possibility of internet reform, that’s because Tolentino diagnoses the condition of being a netizen as one of overriding impotence. The internet is “dramatically increasing our ability to know about things, while our ability to change things stay[s] the same”, or is possibly even worsening. She cites the 2016 US presidential election as evidence that “the worst things about the internet [are] now determining, rather than reflecting, the worst things about offline life”.

Misplaced faith – in the internet as a force for good, in the redemptive arc of reality TV, in feminism, in literature, in American liberal colleges’ propensity to actually uphold liberal values, and, yes, in God – is a recurring theme in Trick Mirror. The standout essay, “Ecstasy”, explores Tolentino’s “intense hunger for devotion”, as the daughter of devout Filipino immigrants who worshipped at an evangelical mega-church in Houston so large devotees playfully nicknamed it “the Repentagon”. Tolentino’s gradual crisis of faith coincided with her discovery of recreational drugs in adolescence, which made her feel “as blessed as I ever did when I was a child”.

She teases out the metaphorical echoes between the ecstasies of religion and drugs; both, she suggests, “provide a path toward transcendence – a way of accessing an extrahuman world of rapture and pardon that, in both cases, is as real as it feels”. This rapture is akin to “de-creation”, a concept Tolentino takes from Simone Weil via the poet Anne Carson, defined as “the process of moving toward a love so unadulterated that it makes you leave yourself behind”. Tolentino concludes it is impossible, and perhaps undesirable, to leave her ecstatic disposition behind, which she claims is “the source of good in me – spontaneity, devotion, sweetness – and the worst things, heedlessness, blankness, equivocation, too”.

Equivocation is the predominating mood of Tolentino’s essays. They revel in double binds, and take especial joy in pointing out the double standards wrought by contemporary feminism. In “Always Be Optimising”, an essay charting the rise of athleisure clothing, Tolentino argues that “feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier”. The more inclusive definition of beauty propagated by the body acceptance movement is less progressive than it seems, she contends, because it relies on the precept “that beauty is still of paramount importance”.

Elsewhere, Tolentino observes that the necessary feminist backlash against media scrutiny of female celebrities has produced an undesirable climate in which even legitimate criticism of public officials from the Trump administration, such as Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, is howled down by accusations of sexism, due to “the pop-feminist reflex of honouring women for achieving visibility and power”. In “I Thee Dread”, Trick Mirror’s weakest offering, Tolentino takes aim at weddings, a cheaper target for her ire; it is difficult to credit the essay’s premise that Tolentino could ever be sincerely lured by the saccharine spectacle of the wedding­industrial complex.

Indeed, if Trick Mirror has any failings, it’s that Tolentino frequently swings at unobjectionable targets. We are all alienated by the internet; we are all resentful of the corporate creep into our lives. No doubt this is why Trick Mirror has resonated with its audience. Yet Tolentino’s riskiest and most interesting essays, such as “Ecstasy”, admit us to more personal territory, laying bare her inner contradictions and doubts.

Ultimately, though, it is Tolentino’s own vexed relationship with contemporary feminism – much of it dispensed on the internet, and driven by commercial imperatives – that preoccupies her most in Trick Mirror. She recalls that in college, she winced whenever anyone declared themselves a feminist, yet she has written some of the most lively feminist essays of recent years. She is particularly sceptical about female performativity and collective identification, yet she was also a cheerleader and a sorority sister. No doubt there are more essays on these subjects to come. Her voice, enlivened by these irreconcilable tensions, restores our faith that a genuine self can survive the algorithm age.

Rachel Cusk’s new collection of essays, Coventry (Faber), begins about as far away from the information superhighway as it is possible to get: on the dawdling, narrow country roads of a seaside village in England. “Where I live, there is always someone driving slowly on the road ahead,” Cusk begins, orienting us in what seems more like a minor daily irritant than a subject of philosophical inquiry. And yet in Cusk’s hands, driving refracts into a complex metaphor that poses sharp questions about the arbitrary social contracts we uphold, the subjectivity inherent in any act of apportioning blame, and the tensions between collective and individual will.

As a collection, Coventry disavows the contemporary and the topical. Its major essays address timeless subjects, such as marriage, decorum, home-making and parenting, complemented by some shorter works of literary and art criticism. One essay, “On Rudeness”, bucks this trend by considering the “ascent of rudeness” in the Brexit debate and the phenomenon of Trumpism, but mostly does so in order to consider the cathartic possibilities of truth-telling and its proximity to incivility. Cusk’s essays are refreshingly free of the drumbeat of anxiety underpinning Tolentino’s Trick Mirror ; she eschews the bluster of the external world for the slow-moving, burnished inner life.

Coventry’s disparate subjects are united by Cusk’s persistent interest in the narratives we impose on our lives in order to make sense of them, and the existential terror we experience when those narratives rupture. In “Driving as Metaphor”, the fissure occurs when Cusk hires a car abroad and finds herself struggling to maintain her belief in her driving abilities in the face of disorienting foreign road rules. “[ I]t was as if driving was a story I had suddenly stopped believing in,” she writes, “and without that belief I was being overwhelmed by the horror of reality.”

Cusk’s essays all pivot on similar moments of internal crisis, where a consolatory fantasy is shattered. In “Lions on Leashes” she argues that “the central shock of divorce” lies in its “bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: there are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other”. As Cusk commences divorce proceedings, she experiences a corollary shock: her belief in the feminist tenet of equal division of parental labour breaks down, and she is overwhelmed by “the primitivism of the mother” when she finds herself irrationally insisting to her solicitor that “the children belong to me”.

“Aftermath”, the essay that dissects Cusk’s divorce, is excerpted from her 2012 memoir of the same name, which was vociferously criticised for its alleged narcissism, hypocrisy and one-sidedness. The memoir she wrote prior to that, A Life’s Work, about her maternal ambivalence, was similarly pilloried for running roughshod over mothers. Yet Cusk’s critics fundamentally misinterpret her project: she does not seek to illuminate universal conditions, nor does she make universalising claims. Rather, her essays – much like her autofiction – seek to understand selfhood primarily as a function of existing in relation to others such as family members or intimate partners, which is a vastly more idiosyncratic affair. And unlike Tolentino – who thrives within the contours of the systems she criticises, and admits she makes efforts to be conventionally “likeable” – Cusk is fundamentally uninterested in performing for the benefit of others, or adhering to her assigned roles of wife, mother and daughter, which puts her in a state of constant friction with those closest to her.

Coventry’s brilliant titular essay concerns Cusk’s fraught relationship with her parents, which is punctuated every so often by her being “sent to Coventry” – an “elemental bullying” that entails being subjected to a stretch of extended silence. The inciting incidents that lead Cusk’s parents to enact this punishment – not only in childhood, but well into middle age – are frustratingly withheld, although Cusk’s unflattering portraits of parents gesture towards deep familial discontent. Cusk is more interested in questioning her own complicity in the charade. Being sent to Coventry, she argues, depends on mutual acquiescence and belief: “it would be hard to send someone to Coventry who refused to believe they were there.”

Unsurprisingly, Cusk eventually revolts, but in a characteristically contrarian way. “A person could ultimately gain power” by surviving a stint of such silent treatment, she says; ergo, the supreme power resides in embracing Coventry voluntarily. When her parents eventually relent and make overtures to welcome Cusk back into their lives, she refuses and retaliates by deciding she will remain in Coventry permanently – which has the perverse effect of condemning her parents to Coventry instead. The essay itself performs a kind of meta-Coventry: left without the right of reply, her parents are doubly exiled.

Undergirding all of Cusk’s personal essays is her assertion that the most primal human instinct is a narrativising one. According to her worldview, harmonious relationships emerge from shared narratives, and fractious relationships reflect divergent ones. War – the epitome of the fractious relationship – can be best understood, Cusk argues, as:

embodying the narrative principle itself. It is the attempt to create a story of life, to create agreement. In war, there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view, where violence is welcomed as the final means of arriving at a common version of events.

It’s unclear, then, how truth fits into Cusk’s calculus; truth appears to be secondary to her objective of clarifying her own singular narrative, and how and where it diverges from those she holds in common with others. This is a solipsistic way of comprehending experience, but it is also frequently profound. Cusk’s essays garner their inimitable power by insisting on retaining a singular and uncompromising viewpoint, irrespective of how lonely one is at the narrative’s end.

The yearning to connect with others – and the loneliness that often accompanies that yearning – has preoccupied Leslie Jamison throughout her non-fiction. Her stellar first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, included a memorable meditation on the plight of delusional, socially isolated sufferers of Morgellons disease; her memoir, The Recovering, explored the isolating shame of alcoholism, and the solace Jamison found both in literary accounts of addiction and recovery, and at AA meetings.

Jamison’s latest collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn (Allen & Unwin), picks up this thread, beginning with the phenomenon of 52 Blue, a blue whale scientists discovered off the coast of Puget Sound singing at the uncharacteristically high pitch of 52 hertz, far higher than the species’ usual frequency. Scientists know very little about 52 Blue, but that hasn’t deterred hordes of online admirers from projecting human emotions such as loneliness and isolation onto the whale. Jamison interviews several of 52 Blue’s obsessive, fantasist followers, including a woman who credits the whale with her recovery from a seven-week coma.

So what does the inclination towards pathetic fallacy tell us? 52 Blue, Jamison argues, suggests that “metaphor itself [is a] salve for loneliness”; that is, the material existence of the whale means less to its followers than discovering an apt metaphor for their isolation. “When we pour our sympathy onto 52 Blue,” she writes, “we aren’t feeling for a whale, exactly. We’re feeling for what we’ve built in his likeness.” Jamison acknowledges that if her revelation doesn’t feel exactly fresh, that’s probably because it closely echoes the symbolism of Moby-Dick, which leaves the reader wondering exactly where the originality in her essay lies.

The Louis Theroux-esque approach of mining a kooky subculture for (occasionally shopworn) universal truths recurs in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again”, where Jamison explores the lives of children who believe they are reincarnated, and in “Sim Life”, about the online platform Second Life. While Jamison insists – a little too stridently – that she wants to avoid the pitfall of patronising her subjects, there is still a tinge of condescension when she tries to understand users’ enthusiasm for Second Life’s avatars, or parents’ belief that their children are inhabiting old souls. This almost anthropological detachment is possibly born of the fact the essays were written on assignment.

Jamison’s stronger essays tackle the question of how to represent the pain of others by considering the exemplars of other writers and artists. The powerful titular essay focuses on James Agee, whose pioneering work of reportage, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, tracked the lives of Dust Bowl sharecroppers living in desperate poverty in 1930s Alabama. Agee incorporated the question of how to write from his privileged perspective into his writing; his prose, Jamison writes, “betrays a constant preoccupation with the possibility of doing harm” to his subjects. Yet in spite of the “damage” wrought by “the documentary ‘I’ ”, Agee sincerely wanted to not only know and understand his subjects, but also “to be loved by them and love them back” – an empathy Jamison herself strives for in her own essays, but does not always achieve.

In another superb essay, “Maximum Exposure”, Jamison writes about the complicated but loving relationship between an American photographer, Annie Appel, and the Mexican family she has been documenting for more than two decades. Jamison argues that Appel’s photography, which intrudes on the family’s intimate quotidian lives, poses the unanswerable question: “What distinguishes exploitation from witnessing, and when is that witnessing complete?” It is a question, one senses, that also haunts Jamison.

Jamison makes the most compelling witness when she is writing about her own life. The book’s final section serves as a memoir in miniature, comprising poetic portraits of her grandfather’s death, a fling in Las Vegas after the end of a long-term relationship, the discovery of new love in the place of old, marriage, stepmotherhood, and, finally, pregnancy. These essays are more discursive and uncertain than the sections that precede them; they also refrain from the sermonising tone present in some of her earlier offerings. Like Tolentino and Cusk, at her best, Jamison offers admission to her irrepressible, paradoxical interior life. Together, these collections remind us that as artificial intelligence takes over, we need the radical ambiguity of the essay more than ever.

Sarah Holland-Batt

Sarah Holland-Batt is a poet. Her most recent book is The Hazards.

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