Nora Caplan-Bricker is a writer in Boston.
A few months after getting sober, Leslie Jamison was screening applications for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of which she was a recent graduate, when she realized that she no longer knew how to separate good writing from bad, original insights from cliches. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, with their litany of similar stories, “were teaching me to listen to everyone. I started to lose my bearings,” she writes in “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.” In her drinking days, this was Jamison’s worst nightmare: that to confront her addiction would be to trade the drama of self-destruction for the “plotless abstraction” of ordinary existence — to deaden the raw nerve of an artist’s instincts with the balm of banal health. But the vulnerable work of sobriety had her questioning her old aesthetics. “Submitting myself to the cliches of recovery was another way of submitting to its rituals,” she writes. “There was something illuminating, something even like prayer, in accepting truths that seemed too simple to contain me.”
Like Mary Karr’s “Lit” or Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story,” Jamison’s perceptive and generous-hearted new book is uncompromising on the ugliness of addiction, yet tenderly hopeful that people can heal. Not simply a memoir, “The Recovering” is also a shrewd critical study of the addiction literature genre it joins; a biographical Who’s Who of alcoholic writers in the vein of Olivia Laing’s “The Trip to Echo Spring”; and, at times, a reported narrative about ordinary drunks. At its best, this reckoning with drinking is also a reckoning with writing, especially personal writing. Both feed on the energy of self-absorption; both serve a desire to shape life into a narrative, to shave it down to a series of recountable exploits. In her luminous, best-selling essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” which circles themes of illness and self-harm, Jamison memorably referred to herself as a “wound dweller.” In “The Recovering,” she seeks to understand memoir as something other than a chronicle of damage.
Much of “The Recovering” unfolds in the writerly mecca of Iowa City, where Jamison absorbed the myths of the workshop’s famous drunks — a category that includes John Berryman, Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, to name a few — and the moral that an artist flayed by substances is one open to a truer sight. The early chapters portray a young woman singularly focused on stockpiling excellence, no amount of which disguises her deep insecurity. She cuts and starves herself at Harvard, blacks out nightly at Iowa, and drunkenly cheats on a boyfriend in her PhD program at Yale. (Some of these passages are most interesting for the glimpses they offer of a talented and lucky young writer’s enviable trajectory through rarefied spaces.) Between graduate programs, at the hardest-to-stomach point in her downward spiral, Jamison agrees to care for her dying grandmother but spends more time wallowing in self-pity, chardonnay and her unfinished novel. She worries about her drinking but fears the “creative death” of quitting.
Jamison is a writer of exacting grace: Carver’s short stories are “painful and precise, like carefully bitten fingernails”; describing her own relationship on its last legs: “The hot magma of conflict — with all its heat and surge — had cooled into hardened ridges of resentment, a quieter lunar landscape.” As if to dispel her anxieties, her prose reaches a new register in conveying the rawness of early sobriety, a feeling contained in the memory of “the rabid, dangerous glare of sunlight on snow . . . a brightness so clean and uncluttered it hurt.” The book takes flight when Jamison hits bottom and begins attending meetings.
Recovery, for Jamison, entails casting down her literary idols — or in some cases, looking closely to find that sobriety, as well as drinking, inspired their art. Tracing the lives of famously tortured artists such as Carver and Johnson, she digs beneath the romanticized relationship between addiction and inspiration, revealing sadder and more redemptive truths. Some writers and artists make cameos — among them Billie Holiday, Stephen King and David Foster Wallace — while others’ stories enter a sustained dialogue with Jamison’s own. Perhaps the best vehicle for her themes is Charles Jackson, author of the autobiographical novel “The Lost Weekend.” Like Jamison, he saw an echo between the impulse to write about himself and the impulse to drink, and, like her, he found his way to recovery only once he learned to doubt his old style of storytelling — both its power to save him and to justify his suffering.
Jamison begins the book believing in the healing power of self-knowledge, a variant of Joan Didion’s famous pronouncement that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This faith is tested and transformed in AA. Where once she obsessively sought singularity — that old resistance to cliche — she develops an interest in universality. In recovery, she finds, “your story is only useful because others have lived it and will live it again.” This is a new way of thinking about memoir — one that pulls against the genre’s inherent narcissism. Jamison reframes Didion’s mandate, proposing instead, “We tell others our stories in order to help them live, too.”
Reading a book as thoughtful as “The Recovering,” one suspects that the author has anticipated every criticism. This is a celebration of repetition — the quiet, daily effort to be well in the world — that can sometimes feel repetitive, cycling through the same ups and downs, the same small epiphanies, many times before the lessons take hold. It’s a book written intentionally “in chorus” — Jamison wanted to “write a book that might work like a meeting,” looking outward as well as in — where some voices harmonize better than others. Central as they are to Jamison’s project, the biographical portions don’t progress under their own narrative power (or even, often, chronologically), instead resurfacing whenever they can hold a useful mirror to the central memoir. This can be confusing or even frustrating, as when Jean Rhys begins what will become her book “Wide Sargasso Sea” on Page 243, then pops up almost 200 pages later still at work on the same novel.
But these faults matter less than the fullness with which Jamison captures the feeling of growing up and growing into oneself. Her recovery is also an escape from the airless confines of youthful self-absorption, into a wider world offering more possibilities — for how to live, for how to write — than she could have imagined in her drinking days. By the time she finishes constructing myths to replace those of the tortured artist, she is secure enough to admit that addiction will always be a “powerful narrative engine.” After all, we wouldn’t have much of the art she lovingly analyzes in this book if its authors had gotten sober. She muses, “I wonder what we would have gotten instead.” With this book, Jamison has written her own worthy answer.
By Leslie Jamison
Little, Brown. 534 pp. $30