All the Happy/Sad Young Literary Women
Despite the admonition about waiting until one has “really lived” to publish an autobiography, there’s something to be said for writing a memoir while young. The value of the egregiously self-involved twenty- or thirtysomething woman-trying-to-get-her-life-together voice is its urgency. Three recent personal narratives by successful New York transplants Samantha Bee, Sloane Crosley, and Emily Gould are underscored by a persistent sense of danger and panic or, at least, that something forgotten in the kitchen has caught fire and, at any moment, the whole house could go up in flames.
Like Vivian Gornick, Jo Ann Beard, and Meghan Daum, Bee, Crosley and Gould mine suburban childhoods, first crushes, the unreality of New York real estate, broken hearts, and creepy dudes. The challenge is to approach this stuff without coming across as prosaic. The overarching theme of these stories is the kind of schizoid feelings of young women of whom great things are expected (and who expect to have everything), but are up against huge numbers of other young women. Pampered but somewhat adrift, these narrators capture their generation’s sense of both entitlement and guilt. Mostly they do this with humor.
If these books were any better, it would mean the authors’ lives would’ve had to be a lot worse.
The wildly popular Most Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show, Samantha Bee is a criminally entertaining anecdotalist. One of her essays revolves around her childhood crush on Jesus Christ. And she pulls it off. Her cover bears no description of what the book is about other than a series of tongue-in-cheek, aggrandizing blurbs, like a made-up “smutty” endorsement from Nelson Mandela.
“It's not really a memoir—I'm not Henry Kissinger,” Bee has said of I Know I Am, But What Are You? It’s true that a collection of essays isn’t the same thing as a memoir. But with autobiographical writing, what’s the difference between telling the truth and performing? If the narrator is engaging, does it matter? No one will mistake her book for literature; that’s not the point. What makes Bee successful isn’t her writing, but her outsize, un-self-conscious demeanor and authentic, quirky charm, the fact that she is just so immensely likable. Reading her stories feels less like reading than hanging out with your most hilarious, energetic friend: the dizzy, not-so-dumb blonde.
A master of self-deprecation, Sloane Crosley is faced with a baffling number of choices. She chooses a vacation destination by blindly spinning a globe and going wherever her finger lands (Portugal), but never loses her sense of wonderment and floundering, relatable insecurities. How Did You Get This Number finds her, again and again, in dilemmas where the absurdity piles up, allowing Crosley to play a sort of Carole Lombard part: the clumsily adorable star of a screwball comedy gone slightly off the rails. (One may be forgiven for wondering why she chose to move in—and stay for months—with a kleptomaniac roommate.) But Crosley is too smart to remain passive. She, like Gould and Bee, is a thinking personality unafraid of making mistakes. Crosley’s most distinctive trait is a talent for observation, for slanting things in a thoughtful-enough way to qualify her books as superlative summer reading that’s not bad for you.
Where Bee and Crosley are magnets for ridiculousness, Emily Gould has a dry sense of humor that’s unapologetically impolite. Her half-bitter jokes sometimes sting like Dorothy Parker’s. One semi-scathing section about her visiting mother conveys the conflicting desires to make one’s parents proud and emulate them, and also to get as far away as possible.
It’s very hard to develop complicated, multifaceted characters in such a tight space. People in these essays—childhood friends, cheating lovers, beleaguered, well-intentioned parents—can come across as glib caricatures, and the narrators as lacking compassion. Levity helps offset this problem, which may also be a result of youth, but, on the upside, a lot of things happening to these women are good. Witnessing how these authors channel their respective discoveries that the world is a feral place filled with bizarre behavior is fun. In well-executed screwballs, characters skim along the surface, every once in a while dropping plum lines to deeper feelings of hysteria, frustration, or revelation. Sloane Crosley’s bestselling debut collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, was nominated for the 2009 Thurber Prize for American Humor , and that’s exactly what she uses—exaggerated comedy—to connect everything. Hers isn’t a book of revelation, but it tastes good.
Crosley appeases the gods of envy and jealousy by emphasizing the fact that she’s spoiled. A full-time book publicist, her workhorse ethos makes it easy to get behind her, and she doesn’t test the reader’s patience by whining about anything. Emily Gould’s tenure as a Gawker blogger—and related cover story in The New York Times Magazine accompanied by unwittingly exhibitionistic photos—makes it a hell of a lot harder for her to find a friendly audience. Even her Stevie Nicks-ian title, And the Heart Says Whatever, comes across as a slightly defensive, nonchalant, too cool to pander for sympathy. Of these three books, hers is the most complicated and personal. Instead of focusing on Gawker, she tracks the myriad ways she’s searched to define herself since high school. Often, reading about her romantic entanglements feels like watching someone faced with the choice between getting beaten up and running into a wall.
One of Gould’s considerable gifts is her ability to render love that’s less contented than mentally ill: the kind that makes a woman feel like Nick Nolte’s mug shot. To risk loving, knowing that loss is inevitable, may be the most important test of our lives. Gould understands that the only life worth living is one that risks heartbreak; that loss is always part of the equation. Together, attachment and loss present the opportunity to be our most empathetic selves.
Every woman in New York goes through periods of being single. Whether after a significant relationship or a string of flings, a certain kind of romantic adventurer, like Gould, learns that sometimes you have to be alone in order not to feel lonely. Even if some of her essays are spidery; even if the reader’s patience with her appetite for unworthy lovers frays; even if one doesn’t share her enthusiasm for tattoos or Liz Phair; even if she sometimes makes herself look like a fool, we recognize ourselves in her quest to find her own gravity.
If these books were any better, it would mean the authors’ lives would’ve had to be a lot worse. Here’s the beauty of growing up, as demonstrated in these essays: There is nothing more possible and nothing more impossible. It’s astonishing how much strength and naivete it takes to let yourself look like a fool, and to be in on the joke.
Sarah Norris is a New York-based writer.