Collections of personal essays are notoriously difficult to market. David Sedaris and Nora Ephron aside, publishers generally consider such collections anathema — unless the author also happens to have penned a wildly successful memoir (Cheryl Strayed), or is a popular TV personality (Tina Fey), or otherwise boasts what the industry calls a “platform.” But the aversion to the genre is diminishing somewhat, partly because there are so many ways for an author to gain a Twitter, blog or YouTube following. The new collections tend to be themed, like “Girls” director and star Lena Dunham’s forthcoming collection of essays on young life and love.
To widespread consternation, Dunham reportedly received a $3.7 million advance for her book. Random House will have to sell about half a million copies to break even. Surely the expectations for two recent collections of essays, by Adam Resnick and Leslie Jamison, are more modest. But it’s heartening to see this venerable form riding the wave and publishers taking a chance on relative unknowns.
Adam Resnick’s collection, “Will Not Attend,” is billed as a “memoir-in-essays.” His pedigree is impressive: A longtime writer for “Late Night With David Letterman,” Resnick co-created the TV show “Get a Life” and has written several screenplays, including “Cabin Boy” and “Death to Smoochy.” Letterman fans will certainly recognize the style here: a gruff, wry paean to life’s indignities from a geeky loner who could never quite get with the program.
Resnick’s collection begins with a harrowing sleepover when he was an unpopular 8-year-old and his endless torture by his five (yes, five) brothers, and continues through his disastrous high school dating career, his disastrous but blessedly short stint as an insurance salesman after high school, and the Disney-haunted indignities of marriage and parenthood. “I was born nervous,” Resnick admits, “a condition built into me the way brake lights come standard on cars.” No glass half-full for this dude: “The only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is bitterness, self-loathing, and fantasies of vengeance.” Whether in the backwater Pennsylvania where he grew up or on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he cleaves to a strategy of blatant noninvolvement: “I made it my business not to look at or interact with anyone.”
The best essays here aren’t just stand-up skits but have actual plots — in which things go horrifically, uproariously wrong. In “Blue Yodel No. 13,” the 15-year-old Resnick kidnaps his mother’s car to go on a date he trusts will end with finally getting laid, but he gets distracted by trying to steal a rare record from the girl’s grandmother. The story ends not with his deflowering but with his arrest. In “The Sensodyne Lady,” Resnick and his long-suffering wife adopt a piano from someone in their building; when their young daughter’s musical career goes south, so do their efforts to ditch the hideous behemoth of an instrument during an epic snowstorm.
Anyone who watches Larry David will be familiar with Resnick’s hearty style of tell-it-like-it-is meanness. About a high school date, Resnick declares: “Gina was no great beauty. . . . She was gangly, wore heaps of raccoon mascara, and had crayon-yellow hair that hung from her head like overcooked spaghettini. The skunky black stripe down the middle of her scalp brought to mind a trail of ants walking through a puddle of Cheez Whiz. A judgmental type might describe her as ‘cheap looking.’ ” Resnick sometimes falters by letting the scale tip too far toward mockery, without any balancing self-criticism. In “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” after all, we have other characters to call out Larry David about his cruelty and narcissism.
Narcissism is not a complaint that could be leveled at Leslie Jamison. In fact, her lush, erudite collection, “The Empathy Exams,” which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is precisely about searching for sympathy with and understanding of others, struggling to see the world through a lens less narrow than the self. Although Jamison figures as a character in each essay, they aren’t about her solely but instead turn almost journalistic subjects — visiting a prison in West Virginia, reporting from a marathon on Tennessee terrain so punishing that its motto is “The Race That Eats Its Young” — into occasions for lyrical reflection. As she contends, “You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head,” so her goal is to make the on-the-edge, often bizarre characters and situations she explores as visceral as possible.
Her title essay, “The Empathy Exams,” sets her theme by exploring how doctors are trained to express empathy for patients’ suffering — and how often they catastrophically fail. In “La Frontera,” she reports her reactions to being attacked in Nicaragua (she needed plastic surgery to reconfigure her face); in “Devil’s Bait,” she speaks to people who suffer intense itching from a strange disease, Morgellons, that doctors contend does not exist. Her settings vary wildly, from Bolivia to Fayetteville, so there are wonderful surprises as you move from essay to essay — especially since she employs so many different structures and approaches.
Jamison doesn’t present herself as a saint of generosity toward those she encounters. On the contrary, she questions her impulses. After insinuating herself among the Morgellons sufferers, she explains: “I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. . . . In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal?” All of the essays are sophisticated investigations into the self-conscious way we construct stories about our identity, craft our “own mythology.”
“Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which ends the collection, is a jazzy, disjointed feminist manifesto that considers representations of suffering women from sources as disparate as Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag and Simone de Beauvoir — not to mention “Girls” and Stephen King’s “Carrie.” This ambitious, unconventional essay catalogues the dismissive ways that we view women’s pain, their cutting and “drunken heartbreak.” One could say about Jamison, as she says here about Joan Didion, “Her intelligence excavates a truth at once uncomfortable and crystalline.”
WILL NOT ATTEND
Lively Stories of Detachment
By Adam Resnick
Blue Rider. 256 pp. $25.95
THE EMPATHY EXAMS
By Leslie Jamison
Graywolf. 226 pp. Paperback, $15