Live Through This: A Review
Live Through This. An anthology of nineteen women, plus the editor (Sabrina Chapadjiev), telling the true story of the interaction between self-destructiveness and creativity in their own lives.

I was sent this book to review by the fine people at Seven Stories Press. I was of two minds about it. On the one hand, the book is filled with delightfully harrowing stories about women who face extremely horrible situations, often knowingly self-created situations, and who thrive on those situations, who use them to generate creative pursuits. This is something I personally like reading about, this "women in trouble" theme, so the book was a guilty pleasure. I read it huddled in the corner of the subway, the book's blood red cover wrapped in a brown paper bag, eyes shifting from passenger to passenger, looking for the too-thin girl who knew. That's on the one hand. The stories are both harrowing and delightful.

On the other hand, all of these delightful, harrowing stories are true.

The name of this publication is not merely cleverness and guff, you know. It is a crusader's motto. We are into lies here, not true stories, harrowing though they may be. Non-fiction, creative though it may be, requires three things: (1) the ability to access memories in a pretty good level of detail, (2) the ability to sort and organize those memories by common themes or at least common metaphors, and (3) the ability to render those memories in at least three distinct shades of language. Fiction requires you to do all of that, plus throw in some extraneous deaths, add enough extra siblings to pass the "three" mark, and more often than not add a wizard or a reference to a beloved animal getting sick or hurt. It requires three million things and it is something that really should continue innovating to keep up with reality. If our lying technology can't keep pace with our technology technology, we're going to have no means of fighting back against the lies directed at us. If we fail to be responsible liars, only irresponsible people will lie!

That said: the book is wonderful. There's an essay on Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle turning Sprinkle's breast cancer into a pornographic odyssey through the medical establishment. There's Diane DiMassa's demented and wonderful cartooning ("Whoops! Forgot to kill myself!" goes one caption), there's Bonfire Madigan Shive giving us all a list of things to do instead of panic when the voices come (among them "play!", "masturbate", and "positive graffiti"), Daphne Gottlieb's account of what it's like to write when you're clinically depressed and chronically resisting medication, and Kate Bornstein's illustration of Scientology concepts from her tenure as first officer of L. Ron Hubbard's flagship, the "Apollo" (really that is worth the price of the book alone, in my opinion.) Where the writing is good, it's outstanding, and where it's not so good the stories remain riveting. Even if you aren't naturally drawn to this kind of anthology anyway Live Through This is manifestly worth your time.

But what I would have liked to see: one fictional story. One! I understand that the purpose of the book was something else: this desire to elucidate and explain the link between self-destructive behavior and creativity in women. It is maybe untoward to suggest that the participants in an anthology devoted to telling the truth about self-loathing and artful doom should tell a few lies while they're at it. But really: it's a cop-out to say that truth is stranger than fiction. When you tell a lie you're forcing yourself to make yourself believable to another person; you're constructing yourself within their mind. It's a better way of telling the truth if you do it right.

And Live Through This bears that out: one of the most interesting stories (in terms of plot, not necessarily technique) is Nicole Blackman's "She's Lost Control Again (Or How Alice Learned To Drive)". Blackman's piece starts off with a poem about anorexia, "Holy". Blackman then talks about how she wrote the poem without any personal experience with or endorsement of anorexia, how she deliberately tried to put herself in an anorexic's head in order to see what the disease was all about. In short order she becomes an unintentional hero to young anorexic girls across the world who take her poem as a personal validation, an anthem. Blackman in no way intended this mess, and her efforts to get out of this mess come off as a little bit perfunctory, a little bit preachy (compared to the rest of the women in the book, who are for the most part confessing to pretty horrifying things and dealing with them in ultimately healthy ways, all things considered.)

But it's the mess that's interesting. Truth gets you understanding. Lies get you identification, get you empathy. If the goal is to communicate something, I know which I'd pick.

Posted by future on Fri, 25 Jul 2008 16:13:45 -0400 -- permanent link

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