In Praise of Messy Lives was a book I hadn’t heard of and probably wouldn’t have bought had I not received a copy from Canongate as part of their ‘handpicked’ initiative in which if you bought one book from Canongate they would handpick another for you. In my case I picked a copy of A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, which I’ve wanted to read for some time, and alongside it I received a wonderfully thoughtful postcard from Louise at Canongate and a copy of this book.
There will be, no doubt, many American readers of this blog that have heard of Katie Roiphe, but she was a complete unknown to me so I just started reading. Then I read some more, and some more. In Praise of Messy Lives is a collection of essays, loosely centred around the theme of ‘messy lives’, selling the benefit of living less than perfectly. It’s an interesting theme, and Katie Roiphe has a strong voice, an interesting perspective and a perceptive outlook. I can imagine it is a voice that people would quite strongly disagree with, and I suspect, also, that there are elements of me that Roiphe was arguing quite vociferously against. Yet this, for me, made it a refreshing and insightful read.
The book is split into 3 sections which organise the essays around 3 core themes: Life & Times, Book and The Way We Live Now. Each section offers a range of perspectives from the behaviour of others following a divorce, views on single parenting, the life of Jane Austen, the great American writers: Updike, Roth and Bellow; Facebook (or Fakebook, which is a great name for it I think), angry commentators and sadomasochism. Roiphe’s themes, I should point out, are not for the faint hearted. She is challenging, intelligent and unforgiving. Like here where she talks about helicopter parenting in the essay ‘The Child is King’:
“In discussing the disheartening toll babies take on relationships, Badinter writers, ‘A mother cannot allow herself to be consumed by her baby to the point of destroying her desires as a woman.’ It occurs to me that in some sense, many of the mothers she is talking about are using their children as an escape from the imperatives of romantic life. This elevation and fetishisation of the child over the parent’s private life is perhaps not always the cause of unhappiness, but rather it may be some sort of escape from the pressure to be happy, some flight from the demands of romantic connection. If the child is overwhelmingly central to family life, in all of the much discussed, anti-romantic ways, then you are delivered from the demands of true intimacy, at least for a while; it’s a reprieve from the expectation of romantic happiness, which can, of course, be exhausting.”
I think she’s got a point. There are lots of challenging views on Roiphe’s book, and I use the word challenging too often here, which makes her sound like a harridan, yet I think I would very much enjoy the sharpness of her insight and wit, the way in which she picks words apart, the ways in which social riskiness has become even more difficult and the ‘enlightened’ way to live casts an oppressive shadow over otherwise perfectly responsible people. I found much in Roiphe’s essays humorous and perceptive, and I enjoyed the way she forced me to reconsider some of the way in which I live ‘safely’ and consequently deny myself a more rich and varied existence. I think, somehow, this was a book I really needed to read.
What Roiphe exposes across the body of her essays is how much of people’s behaviour is driven by image presentation and cliché, that true insight and honesty are rare. People play up to a role, and fear stepping outside of it. Yet they reveal themselves through use of language, through their ‘concerns’ and interactions. I loved the way Roiphe explains her experience after she and her husband split up, from her essay ‘The Great Escape’:
“One does have to wonder about the prurient hunger for unhappy detail. Is there an imperative for certain married people to believe that anyone existing outside of the institution of marriage must be suffering? Does the imperative, perhaps, have something to do with their own discontents? (The happily married couples I know are noticeably less invested in the idea that I am suffering some form of collapse. Warwick Deeping, a novelist of the twenties, observed, ‘Those who have made a success of marriage can be gentler to the failures.’) I have noticed the couples most interested in the grand tour of my tragedy are often in couples therapy. They are often in that phase where they hire a babysitter once a week so that they can sit across from each other at a restaurant and distract themselves from the vast distance, the dullness, that has risen up between them with the bustle of menus and waiters. For whatever reason, it is extremely important for these couples to believe that once you are outside of marriage, you have fallen into the abyss. Furthermore, they are extremely interested in watching you, limbs flailing, as you are falling. But what if you, say, refuse to fall?
I begin to notice that when I am a little bit happy, there is nearly always someone there to tell me that I should be serious. That I should be focusing on my situation. That I should be worrying about my child. There is nearly always someone to deftly reel any subject I have ranged onto back to the question of whether my daughter is okay. I am, of course, always ready to worry about whether she is okay. But I wonder if it is truly in her best interest to embrace the philosophy of perpetual worry people seem to be encouraging. Wouldn’t it be better to take her to the zoo?”
I loved this book, I loved its piercing voice, it’s unwillingness to be humble or uncertain, the way in which it shone a light on things that people don’t want to talk about, ripping a hole through life’s daily clichés. I didn’t agree with everything in there, but I don’t think Roiphe cares too much about that. What she does care about is writing clearly, perceptively and honestly. Her sentences are not baggy, they’re not weak. She is brilliant, daring and unflinching. I think she is a person who not only accepts criticism but takes it gracefully, and yet I think I’d be fearful of criticising in case she turned that unflinching gaze on me. Somehow I think I’d be the better for it, and the conversation would be amazing.
In Praise of Messy Lives receives a respectful 9 out of 10 Biis. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
Many thanks to Canongate books, Louise especially, for the excellent choice.