Reading Augusten Burroughs’s new self-help book, “This Is How,” felt like running on a treadmill. Often I was racing along without going anywhere, and there wasn’t even a rerun of “Seinfeld” to watch. I wound up sweaty and grumpy. The most tiring aspect of this book is the parade of one-sentence — occasionally even one-word — paragraphs that are designed to keep the pages turning. Often these paragraphs are sentence fragments.
Some people may like this style.
Authors of self-help books can employ any of several proven approaches to remodeling the psyches and wallets of American consumers. Timid writers choose a single issue at a time from the appalling menu of ways that we torment ourselves and each other. Burroughs, a veteran of several misfortunes and lovingly detailed documentations of them (“Running with Scissors,” “Dry”), quixotically gallops toward every enemy of the self at once. The subtitle is “Help for the Self: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude, & More. For Young and Old Alike.”
The long list and the tone of 19th-century quack medicine imply that the book is light-hearted, and Burroughs does make jokes and throw in a few words you can’t say on TV. However, although he writes in his usual tone of dark comedy, he is sincere. He genuinely wants to help others and believes that he will do so, and his publishers have nobly stepped up to assist. Yet in “This Is How,” I can find little that hasn’t already been said many times by other helpers of the self.
Mostly, Burroughs says a lot without saying much. Not that there aren’t people who will find it helpful to be told, “There is no shame in deciding to just be fat,” or “The other thing about dreams you must know is that they are not like spleens. There is not just one per person.” Like a sports announcer or a book reviewer, Burroughs likes similes and metaphors. “Decisions are beautiful,” he writes. “Decisions are the polishing cloths of life.” Advising readers on how to know if they’re in an abusive relationship, he says, “Try to see if what they say to you might, in a way, also be a kind of steering wheel. It’s a spectrum, too.” A mental image of myself driving a rainbow made me forget what Burroughs was talking about.
This book is frustrating but not worthless. In the chapter “How to End Your Life,” Burroughs writes touchingly about how he weighed the pros and cons of suicide, examining a list of what he wanted his own death to accomplish. “When I saw it this way,” he says, “I realized something. It wasn’t that I wanted to kill myself. What I really wanted was to end my life.” He wanted to change his old life into a new one, beginning with choosing a new first and last name. (He did leave his real name, Chris Robison, behind.) Burroughs denounces the maddening happy-talkers who advise us to walk around smiling no matter how we feel. “Affirmations are dishonest,” he insists. “They are a form of self-betrayal based on bogus, side-of-the-cereal-box psychology.” He argues that we must first stop lying to ourselves. Such assertions are difficult to argue with, but they are not new.
Here is how you inflate a small idea into a 230-page book: You take up a lot of space. When talking about domestic violence, for example, Burroughs uses a paragraph — an itty bitty Augustenian sort of paragraph — explaining that the 800 number he is about to provide is “toll-free so it won’t cost you anything and it won’t show up on your phone bill.” Is it possible that a purchaser of his book would be unaware of this not exactly obscure fact about 800 numbers? And is it likely that a victim of abuse will dog-ear this page halfway through a book for a number that is available everywhere? Perhaps Burroughs has a touching old-fashioned faith in hardback books.
Finally, he devotes a paragraph to the National Domestic Violence Hotline number. Are we there yet? No. When he dragged me through yet another paragraph to stretch out the number in words (“Seventy-nine-nine, seventy-two, thirty-three”), I began to feel that I was being abused by Augusten Burroughs. I considered calling the number. I was positive it started with 799.
T HIS IS HOW
Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin’s. 230 pp. $24.99