June 22, 2018KR Reviews

Chasing Luminosity: Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering

New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2018. 544 pages. $30.00.

Through a compelling amalgam of literary criticism, memoir, and cultural criticism, in The Recovering (April 2018) Leslie Jamison traces the alcoholism and subsequent recovery attempts of several famous writers, including herself. Jamison describes what she’s up to as “speculative autobiography—trying to find a map for what my own sober creativity might look like.” I’d like to make a motion to add this to the list of terms, such as Maggie Nelson’s self-proclaimed “auto-theory,” for some of the hybrid and vibrant work being done by women creative nonfiction writers today. Works such as Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012) and Book of Mutter (2017) and Nelson’s Bluets (2009) and The Argonauts (2015), for instance, bring the personal into ingenious dialogue with the theoretical and political. These book often defy definition, being described as everything form lyric essay and memoir to, as Sheila Heti does with Heroines, “composite creature: part memoir, part criticism, part fiction, part feminist tract or call to arms or self-help manual or biography or work of literary history.” The innovative results of these composite creatures doesn’t stop critics from sending many of these women’s books to bed without supper for being supposedly wounded and self-focused.

One recent composite creature, Mary-Kim Arnold’s Litany for the Long Moment (2018), plays on this reductive take on women’s personal writing as the terrain of “sad girls” in much the same way Chris Kraus did in I Love Dick (which used techniques of fiction and memoir, among many others) in 1987 when she defined her project as “Lonely Girl Phenomenology.” In her introduction to the book, Carla Harryman writes that Arnold draws on the work of various artists “to fabricate a sagacious community of informant ‘sad girls.’” As Zambreno puts it in Heroines, “the self-portrait, as written by a woman, is read as somehow dangerous and indulgent . . . indulging in the self as contrary to art.” Yet these women writers are not only continuing to write their personal experience, but they are doing so not against but in the very service of art. Far from self-indulgent, this layered work brings the strengths of both the public and private realms—what I like to think of as the close-up and long shot—to bear on the subject matter, ultimately allowing these writers to take a more comprehensive at themselves but also at art and society at large.

In addition to the larger sociopolitical and metaphysical contours of addiction, The Recovering charts how literary lore has characterized the drunk male writer versus the drunk female writer. Jamison contrasts the romantic notion of the “testosterone-steeped lineage of inflated egos and glorified dysfunction” with the “female drunks [who] rarely got to strike the same rogue silhouettes as male ones. When they were drunk, they were like animals or children: dumbstruck, helpless, ashamed.” The women addicts aren’t portrayed as virile virtuosos whose writing’s the fiery outcome of addiction—who when they hurt, as Jamison notes of Denis Johnson, “something got made, like a jewel or a hatched bird.” Instead, sad girl syndrome taints the analysis of these women’s work—the tendency to portray the female writer as a pathetic mope, guilty of the crime of thinking her mournful tale worthy of being told. In the end, for women writers, it often comes down to a choice between being portrayed as victim or perpetrator, the sad girl or the monster.

When asked to respond to another student’s artwork in high school, Jamison penned a tale of a girl in a wheelchair who burns to death. She knows all too well that she, too, has been reductively classified as one of the “sad girls” herself at times. Yet, as a self-professed chaser of writing’s “luminosity—the glimmering constellation points of a life told as anecdotes” she craves as much as that next drink, Jamison rightfully belongs to the pantheon of (usually pointedly male) virile addictive virtuosos. Instead of a book about recovery that also happens to deal with this quest for luminosity, I see The Recovering as a book about this quest for luminosity that also happens to deal with recovery. It’s so much more than just another addiction memoir. The book is really about longing itself, that powerful hunger to take the world in endlessly that haunts many writers.

At times The Recovering inevitably feels a bit all over the place. I say inevitably because I’m not sure how this could have been avoided. The structure of the book reflects what writers like Jamison struggle with every day: wanting it all, at every moment, and in the most intense way possible—a force that propels her writing into all these different modes of being. As she puts it in an endearingly humorous and self-effacing turn of phrase, “I demanded intensity from everything in my life, even the ducks beyond my window.” This is a book that wants to be and do everything, the Moby Dick of recovery memoirs, and I love it for it. Goodness knows the male virile virtuoso would have gone for it, and I’m delighted that Jamison shoots the literary moon here.

I treasure this book’s refusal to stay in the lines, its insistence on looking radically inward and outward at the same time. For instance, Jamison tells us the details of how she stopped drinking in 2009; she also tells us this was the same year that, due to a cracked justice system, Prisoner 109416, who’d turned tricks to fund a meth habit, burned to death in a cage in the middle of the desert for a small infraction. That is, Jamison acknowledges that because she’s white and privileged she gets to write searching memoirs about recovery while Prisoner 109416 blazes. She highlights how our culture requires that we segregate these two stories, but she refuses to do so herself; she “no longer want[s] to live by the traditions that keep them apart.”

Throughout the book, Jamison strives to balance the sometimes competing imperatives of telling her own stories and telling the stories of other addicts. She tries to honor the AA doctrine of making it all about something larger than herself, and often portrays herself as trying to atone for being too self-absorbed. But I wonder if she would have had to take herself to task for her desire to talk about her own experience quite so much if she were one of those Drunk Male Geniuses she writes about.

That said, Jamison’s personal narrative grows increasingly nuanced as it becomes braided with cultural and literary criticism and all these pieces of other people’s lives. At a certain point in the book, she writes about her relief at finally spotting the mice she suspected she had in her house all along. I see this strange scene as a symbol of the work she does in The Recovering. The surfacing mice moment dramatizes the tension between her desire to think inwardly (often unfairly categorized as the action of a self-absorbed, drunk, confessional writer) or outwardly (categorized as the helpful, sober, writer of socially conscious prose), and the instant in which they come together to make this book—the mouse poised between inner tunnel and outer room. Jamison’s stunning “speculative autobiography” allows us to encounter her subterranean animal right at the moment it pops its head out, made luminously visible by her writing.

Caroline Hagood
Caroline Hagood’s first book of poetry, Lunatic Speaks, was published in 2012 by FutureCycle Press, and her second poetry book, Making Maxine’s Baby, a small press bestseller, came out in May 2015 from Hanging Loose Press. Her lyric essay book, Ways of Looking at a Woman, will come out from Hanging Loose Press in 2019. Her poetry and essays have also appeared in Drunken Boat, Hanging Loose, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, Salon, and the Economist. She received her English PhD from Fordham University and teaches creative writing and English at Barnard and Fordham.