By Nancy Mairs
HarperCollins. 161 pp. $19.95
In her introduction to "Carnal Acts" Nancy Mairs recalls the material she left out -- essays her editor felt were "too academic." Mairs was "stung by the implicit message that the interest of publishers and audiences could be piqued only by part of me: the damaged part." The "damaged part" certainly pervades their resulting selection. Nancy Mairs is crippled by multiple sclerosis, which limits her physical freedom to a world of wheelchairs, incontinence and draining fatigue. Her incurable, degenerative disease has inevitably become an integral part of all Mairs's experience -- including her writing.
Most of the essays Mairs (and her editor) chose to publish together in "Carnal Acts" stem from assignments she undertook while she was working on her memoir, "Remembering the Bone House." There is a short story (the only piece of fiction), followed by six reprints from the 1987 New York Times "Hers" column, and the texts of some speeches, mainly concerning physical disability and MS. It's a somewhat disparate collection, covering topics that range from civil disobedience to illiteracy, and it lacks obvious unity except that of Mairs's voice, which is consistently honest and devoid of self-pity, often thought-provoking and sometimes even humorous.
Mairs writes that she wanted to make sense of her own experience "as it illuminates human experience more generally" -- an unlikely aim for one whose extraordinary circumstances seem so removed from most of ours. But, without trivializing the pain that MS has brought to her and her family, Mairs refuses to perceive her illness as something rare and tragic. Her candid descriptions of her life with MS reach far beyond the crippling limitations of that particular disease, and we recognize in them our own fears, shortcomings -- and joys. Mairs does not chronicle despair or celebrate bravery, but she normalizes the extraordinary, bringing it into the realm of our understanding.
In "Good Enough Gifts" Mairs discusses some of the positive aspects of living in the face of inevitable adversity. She speaks convincingly of the coherence, tolerance and sense of responsibility her family has learned from sharing her affliction. One obvious gift she fails to mention, however, is the unique literary vantage that multiple sclerosis has given her. Mairs's most personal essays, those devoted to her "damaged part," are undoubtedly her most original and inspiring.
Mairs's social commentary extends beyond questions of handicapped access and our tendency to place the disabled on the periphery of society. Describing herself as a "white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual, crippled feminist of a reclusive and rather bookish temperament," she gives us an idea of her political opinions that is borne out by her essays. Mairs, predictably, abhors widespread illiteracy, protests nuclear testing, questions the allocation of federal funds to defense, shuns euphemism and feels that the rules of polite discourse work to the disadvantage of women. Her views are appealing, but we've heard them before, and could have guessed them from the description she offered of herself. Occasionally, Mairs disappoints us by failing to offer original insights (which we come to expect from her more personal writing) into challenging issues. She comments, for example, that in subtle ways "language shapes women's reality," repeating the tired Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about the relationship between language and reality without explaining or even inquiring how revolutions in thought can come about (as they surely do) when we are so shackled by linguistic convention. At times such as this, Mairs seems content to toe a well-worn, left-of-center, feminist line. Here, perhaps, her writing isn't academic enough.
To dwell on such shortcomings does not do justice to this collection. Although the better essays deal primarily with Mairs's "damaged part," it would be a mistake to read them merely as descriptions of life with multiple sclerosis. Their scope is far broader. The essay that gives its title to this volume, "Carnal Acts," helps to explain how Mairs's literary voice is profoundly influenced, but not dominated, by her disability. She describes coping with being crippled: "I do so I think by speaking about it, and about the whole experience of being a body, specifically a female body, out loud, in a clear level tone." Each of her remarkable essays reflects this determination. In clear, unencumbered prose Mairs writes about being a female body with troubles -- and "God knows we have plenty of those."
The reviewer is a Baltimore editor and critic.