What do you do when you find you have taken a notable dislike to the author of a collection of personal essays? This is the conundrum I’m in at the moment, picking the book up every few days, stumbling instantly on some other incident that makes me wince, putting the book back down again. Here are a few of the events that have made a certain impression on me:
- The writer had a difficult relationship with her father, who was hearty, cynical, often unkind and clearly lacking in empathy. However, the author describes how she ‘got back at him later’, by turning up to a Christmas Eve dinner with a boyfriend in tow and on board and ‘let him have it. The boyfriend and I blamed him for everything – my mother’s alcoholism, which by then was full-blown; the Vietnam war which he abetted by supporting; the general unhappiness of our family. We left him in tears, and hugged each other in triumph while my mother and brother and sister looked on in dismay.’
- When she gives her first novel to a new and somewhat untested friend to read, the friend has to admit she had trouble reading it because she found it ‘misogynistic’. ‘I put myself in the wrong by shouting an obscenity and slamming down the phone,’ the writer states, and that was the end of the friendship.
- The author has spent much of her early life in therapy, and a fair chunk of the middle of it, too, and she blames it for increasing her problems rather than resolving them. A faint awareness of this makes her behave very badly with the last therapist she ever has, becoming ‘hostile and prickly’, ‘sneering’ at his décor and his clothes. ‘I behaved unpleasantly because I was paying to behave any way I pleased,’ she explains.
- And the one I’m really struggling with: at a graduate barbecue party, one not providing enough elemental passion to maintain the writer’s interest in it, she sneaks off with her husband and a friend into the apartment of the couple who are hosting. First they can’t contain their giggles when they peek into the bedroom and find it done out in frills and flounces and fresh flowers. Then they find a calendar on the kitchen wall that has been marked up by the hostess with all sorts of ordinary events, her mother-in-law’s birthday, illustrated with candles, reminders to make a dentist appointment, the mention of a nice sunset. The naïve enthusiasm of the calendar gets right under the writer’s skin. Leading the others on she fills the calendar’s days with parodic entries, shrieking with laughter. That’s the end of another friendship.
In all fairness I have to point out that the author is not suggesting that these incidents represent anything other than bad behaviour. She’s fully aware of it, and there is often some gesture towards elegantly composed remorse at some point in the essay. But I find my jaw dropping simply because she did these things, and wrote about them, and the point of writing about them is not really her sense of guilt and regret. Underlying the anecdotes, because this is personal essay territory after all, she is seeking for understanding and empathy, for the reader to laugh a little with recognition since, after all, these are the sorts of things anyone might do, or want to do, if they had the nerve. I’m finding her like a naughty child who decides that if they are clever enough and entertaining enough subsequently, all will be forgiven and forgotten.
The main problem is that the character of the author is about as opposite to mine as it is possible to be. ‘I don’t mean to say that I’m passive-aggressive,’ she writes, ‘I lack the manipulativeness that is a key element of that syndrome – only that I’m passive and aggressive.’ In other words, she’s the sort of person I’ve spent my life quietly identifying out of a crowd and then crossing the road in order to avoid. But I also think of myself as someone who can put herself in other people’s shoes, who can find a sympathetic perspective, see it from the other side, and accept people exactly as they are. And so naturally this author bugs me most of all because she’s messing with my own sense of who I am, and who it is acceptable to be. Even holding in my head the thought ‘my goodness, this person is ghastly’ is contravening my sense of what it’s polite and respectful to do.
I came to this book because I’m intrigued at the moment by authors who claim kinship or a feeling of friendship with Franz Kafka. I want to write my own essay about it, to think about what it means to have a friend in Kafka, and I need to get past my dislike of this author to hear what it is she’s really saying. The essays themselves are good, and there could be many interesting things here, only the voices in my head are drowning her out. All I feel at the moment is that Kafka would not have felt a reciprocal friendship with her, because for all his sense of isolation and exclusion (her belief in herself as an ‘anomaly’ is heavily imprinted into her narrative), he was a sweetie, even if a wretched and troubled sweetie.