When I come to a book, I want very badly to love it deeply, to find myself enthralled and enraptured by it, to have new avenues of intimacy and perception opened within my mind, to come away ecstatic and electrified. If this is not possible, the next thing I want is to really fucking hate it, to be able to cast the book down in disgust and point at it with a baleful, imperious finger as I declaim that this shit right here is exactly what is wrong with essays/art/the academy/the world/etc etc etc. The Best American Essays 1997, edited by humorist Ian Frazier, denies me both of these experiences. It is a collection of mostly reflective, mostly humorous essays of uneven quality.
But first, the publication stats: 24 essays total, most coming in under 5,000 words, with 5 from The New Yorker, 3 from The New York Times Magazine, 2 from Harper’s, 1 from The Oxford American, 1 from The Paris Review, 1 from The New Republic, 1 from The Threepenny Review, 1 from Allure, 1 from High Plains Literary Review, 1 from Sports Afield, 1 from The Atlantic, 1 from Under the Sun, 1 from Creative Nonfiction, 1 from The Missouri Review, 1 from Esquire, 1 from The Massachusetts Review, and 1 from Granta. Nothing too surprising here: as with many years, BAE is dominated by the major New York publications, with a smattering of national magazines and well-regarded literary journals.
And secondly, the quirky ephemera: my copy of BAE 1997 came used, with an inscription on the title page reading “Happy 20th Birthday, Love Mom + Dad” (evidently the gift was not well-received?), a red ribbon straddling page 160 and 161, smack in the middle of Lauren Slater’s emotionally claustrophobic Black Swans, which recounts the repetitive horrors of her struggles with OCD. This essay has been diligently and methodically marked up in purple highlighter, though no other essay in the collection has received such attention. I suspect that one of the previous owners bought the book just for this essay, though there is no way to ever confirm this.
And now, the main gist: it was difficult not to think of this collection as The Fourth State of Matter & Other Essays rather than as The Best American Essays of 1997. And who could blame me for being drawn to this particular monument, for wanting to read the whole collection in light of it? Jo Ann Beard’s account of the 1991 University of Iowa shootings is easily one of the best known contemporary essays. I teach it to my Intro to Creative Nonfiction undergraduate students, and almost every intro-level instructor I know teaches it in one form or another. When asked by strangers—on planes, in bars, in waiting rooms, and in all the other places of forced, inescapable conversation—to clarify “what creative nonfiction is” I usually just tell them to read The Fourth State of Matter. I’ve re-read it for teaching or research or whatever probably 4-5 times in the last 18 months. Normally I approach this essay in my teaching persona, and I always nudge/persuade/coerce my students into talking about Beard’s prose on a near-microscopic line-by-line level: what kind of details does she provide? Does she use particular sonic patterns? Is her vocabulary more Latinate or more Anglo-Saxon? Are her sentences long or short? Are there recurring sentence structures? What sort of metaphors does she rely most heavily on? That teaching persona makes me seem like some kind of deranged whip-brandishing New Critical martinet, obsessed with cracking the codes of style and technique, and so it was a pleasure, maybe even a relief, to read it this time with an eye towards the holistic experience.
And it holds up beautifully. The Fourth State of Matter is elegant and brutal in all the right ways, with a swerve that still feels forceful and yet inevitable even after so many re-reads. Nothing demonstrates the sheer excellence of this essay better than the ending, an imagined conversation with a departed friend:
In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we’re in a pocket of silence. We’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of stillness, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.
Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.
But Beard’s essay feels a bit like an anomaly in this collection, which is dominated by short, mostly wry essays, sometimes a little thinky, sometimes a little nostalgic, sometimes a little ranty, and sometimes a little mysterious. The strongest of these is probably Hilton Als’ Notes on My Mother, an elliptical unfolding of an enigmatic relationship, which opens with an absolutely killer line--“Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being”—and keeps that balance of smart lyricism and pleasing opacity all the way through:
All the women in my family wanted me to become a black male for the same reason: they wanted to define themselves against me. I tried to please them, because I adored them. I thought that being an auntie man was a fair compromise, but it wasn’t.
Alphabetical ordering means that Als opens the collection, and Joy Williams closes it by channeling the snarky spirit of H. L. Mencken for The Case Against Babies, an essay bubbling over with joyous condemnation of reproduction, of overpopulation, of ecological arrogance, of all the bullshit sentimentality that comes with anything involving babies. What lies between these two, Beard and a few other exceptions aside, ranges from pleasing-yet-forgettable personal essays to sheer crap. Dagoberto Gilb has an amusing anecdote about the whirlwind of emotions that came when he first saw a stranger reading one of his book in public. Cythia Ozick, Lukie Chapman Reilly, Frank Gannon, Charles Simic, and Naton Leslie all have well-executed reflections on some variant of family story or history. Gay Talese’s Ali in Havana has an absurd, wonderful concept—Muhammad Ali meets Fidel Castro at a really awkward formal reception!—but at 13,000-ish words the piece just drags and drags and drags, failing to keep me awake for the ensuing carefully-observed international comedy of manners (I was unsurprised to find out, through judicious use of Google, that Talese saw 12 rejections for this piece before Esquire agreed to publish it). Susan Sontag offers a truncated, phoned-in history of the decline of cinema as an art form. Thomas McGuane’s Twenty-Fish Days, published originally in Sports Afield, gives us a narrative example of the “kind of poetic singularity” that sometimes accompanies fishing trips. I am certain there are readers, somewhere out there, who care deeply about the “poetic singularity” made possible by fortuitous angling. I am not one of those readers.
I should make a special note here about how I am deeply drawn to, despite myriad reservations, My Habit, Paul Sheehan’s essay about his crack vial collection (which, at 562 entries, was easily the largest crack vial collection in the world). Sheehan willfully, almost dickishly, ignores all the big stuff—he doesn’t want to talk seriously about the racial implications of drug policy, or the socioeconomic structures, or any of the half-dozen other loaded issues. He doesn’t use crack. He just wants to collect a ton of crack vials, for reasons he admits he doesn’t fully understand, and this leads him to wander the streets of New York, at odd hours in odd places, looking for vials with new colors, new caps, or new designs. Sometimes he pretends to be a priest while doing so, because evidently people ask fewer questions when priests dig around in the trash or the snow for crack vials. There’s something oddly charming about this man’s “obsessional predicament”, about this fucked up flâneur, this perambulating asshole who lets us have a little peek into his mind, who lets us feel up the textures of his weird brain for a few minutes.
This is, I think, what we mean when we talk about essay-as-a-verb, when we talk about the mind of the author being consubstantial with the text (or however that damned Montaigne quote goes), what Ian Frazier meant in the introduction, when he talked about “the voice unspooling in the essay’s present time”. Those of us who write essays unspool ourselves in this weird, intimate, idiosyncratic sphere, and the best essays from BAE 97 tended to be the ones who directly owned up to that. Frazier described his individual selection process as follows: “I think the essays in this collection are great. I liked many essays that I did not choose, but I liked these the best. To say what moved me about various specific ones would not be to tell you much of use to you.” When I first read that, I thought it was a bit of a cop-out, a lazy way of getting out of the hard work of justifying his decisions. But I’ve come around to Frazier’s side: sometimes you like the jerk with the crack vial collection, and sometimes you don’t.
Will Slattery helps curate Essay Daily. He is an ex-cheesemonger, a CNF MFA candidate, and was once described by a friend, during a heated argument, as “a violent homosexualist”. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.