I have a special kind of respect for things that bother me in ways I don’t understand. Another way of saying it might be that there are times when I find myself unable to ignore things even though I’m sure I don’t like them. It’s annoying when people say something’s “compelling” when they mean “good.” There should be a space for things that compel us but we don’t like. I don’t mind an occasional burr in my ass or fart in my temple. I don’t mind the occasional off remark. I still think about how there are enough jokes about dead babies that the dead-baby joke is actually a genre, and I still wonder why I am interested in these jokes even though I really like babies.
I’ve been having this feeling lately with Jenny Boully’s essay, and the fact that I’m still having it even though we’ve already discussed the essay in class has precipitated a need to exorcise Boully from my spiritual universe, or at least come to terms with the fact that I can never, at this point, un-read “A Short Essay on Being.” You could say I’m compelled to write this post.
Several of my classmates liked this essay. “Sophisticated” was one word, “subtle” was another. Toward the end of class, Ander said something to the effect of “well, I think there’s more to say about it than ‘Plastic Bag,’ and I think that’s a strong-enough endorsement” (and if I’m misremembering or mischaracterizing that, Ander, feel free to air me out in front of my peers). His assessment sort of sums up the feeling I was trying to explain a couple of paragraphs ago: Can I respect something I don’t like? Can I be compelled by it in a positive way?
Anyway, my classmates have already been subjected to my tense body language and vaguely combative comments, but I still feel a drive to boil down my issues and present them to you here—a tray of small, ugly food.
In the essay, Boully presents a series of scenes in which people say boorish and ignorant things to
her and she sits back like a bad dog and takes it. She doesn’t correct the mistakes of her friends and associates, who come off as dim, culturally insensitive people more interested in talking than listening—a strawman of the American individual. She doesn’t correct because it’s not the Thai way—a “way” she solemnly adopts even though she makes a rather big deal about how she’s from Texas, and what’s so hard to believe about that (you bigot). (The metatexual irony here—which I’m not suggesting Boully is unaware of—is that the whole essay is a correction.)
Later, she makes a point that pot Thai is poor folk’s food, but manages to find a place in Brooklyn where she can spend thirteen dollars on it. (I lived in Brookyln for six years and ate what was probably pad Thai every month or so. It was $7. I was the guy who ordered it at the “Native Thai” spice level, which usually forced me into the uncomfortable position of having to say, “I promise, I can handle it”—and I’m still sure they turned it down a little, which is sorta racist if you think about it).
Presumably, the place Boully went to was advertised as “authentic,” otherwise the anecdote deflates even further. And why, I wonder at the end, does Boully make the effort for transitive-property friends who seem so unbearably lame? In my more frustrated moments, my answer to that question is that if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to write this cool essay.
I’ve long been aware of the fact that people say they want “authentic” experiences and then don’t want them once they’re actually confronted with them. I’ve also long been aware of the fact that humans are, seemingly by nature, full-on operas of self-contradictory behavior and belief systems. But are those Boully’s “points”? (And I put “points” in quotes to acknowledge that my approach here might be skewered as regressive and masculine and indifferent to the fluidity and immorality of raw experience itself—I point it out because I know I’m being old-fashioned, but, like Boully, I can’t help who I am.)
If they are her points—or, if that’s what this essay illustrates—I’m skeptical. The instability of Boully’s cultural identity is so beautifully performed that by the end of the essay, I don’t trust any of her opinions or experiences. As a result, I find it easy to ignore her arguments about authenticity. I find it easy to think that Boully might just be a slightly timid—but also slightly mean—person with odd tastes and standards. (I even find it sort of easy to ignore her pain in these difficult situations, which is not a nice thing to say, and I’m struggling with that.)
I agree with Ander and my Boully-supporting classmates that the essay is very cleverly arranged. (If there’s subtlety and sophistication, that’s where I see it: In the essay’s leanness and balance, in the way it seems like Boully has found an electron for every proton.) But is that—to invoke a fiction workshop trope that I feel a sort of queasy bond to—what’s really “at stake”? I don’t necessarily need a struggle from Boully. I don’t need a skyscraping moment of revelation. I don’t need her to be standing on one side of the river saying, “And from that moment on, I was never the same.”
But shouldn’t I be able to ask for those things, especially when what we’re dealing with is presumably of active and real importance to Boully as a human being traversing the wilderness of identity? Isn’t this “important stuff”? I wonder what she thinks the sum of these anecdotes and experiences are (again, realizing that this is an old-fashioned concern, but one I’m willing to defend). What direction is her thinking moving in? Is it even thought in motion, or is she just presenting a series of sad misunderstandings? Is she really problematizing the nature of identity in ways that are novel? Is there morality here? Is she frustrated by all this free-range insensitivity? Is she, as my colleague and pal Justin Yampolsky suggested in his post here, presenting a farce? If so, for whose benefit? And if not… well, for whose benefit? And if for nobody’s benefit, then why?
I’m taking calls on this. I’ve been bothered by this essay since I read it the first week of class. I’m still bothered. There’s a lot of merit in that. Re-invoking Ander, I do feel like I could talk about it for a while and I do think that means something. I think I’m just having a vaguely Emperor’s New Clothes moment: I’m hearing good things, but not understanding them, or they’re just not clearly stated enough for me yet, so I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’re just being smart people who like to talk and are lending this a lot more weight than it has. (Not to demean writing that relies on ambiguity and ellipses of consciousness—despite how buttoned-up I’m sure I sound here, I like freak music and nonlinear art and I’m perfectly happy watching David Lynch movies without making any attempt to “solve the puzzle,” a laissez faire mindset I might’ve inherited from my Dad, who frequently tells me that he thinks plot is for suckers.)
Surely this could be chewed on a little more though. Aren’t we writers? Articulators? [Thumps chest, stares at the ocean.] Again, that might be me being old-fashioned—I’m neurotic by birth and driven to hermeneutics by training. I don’t know why I’ve laughed at dead-baby jokes and I probably never will. It’s working at a level that, like Boully’s essay, is probably so complex that we’re just not built to get it. That won’t stop me from thinking about it though. I’ll be here with a chisel, chiseling.