This Is Running for Your Life (review)

Often I went to the movies to mess with time, to get it off my back or keep it from staring glumly at me from across the room.

This Is Running for Your Life is a pretty great collection of essays, with a mix that includes some more personal, memoir-ish stuff and some that are a bit more historically-minded, on-the-ground reportage. I don’t think surgical focus is Michelle Orange‘s strong suit here, nor her aim, really. The joy is in the wandering. As she says late in the book,


Perhaps all I can offer is the setting down of a space, one whose highest aim is that you might roam, however elusively, within its borders.

Topics aside, what I really, really appreciated were the regular, like, slap-your-forehead/I-wish-I’d-written-that/I-need-to-read-that-again delights on the level of sentence and word and image, little pivots and reveals from behind the cape. If you’re jazzed by turns of phrase, you’ll find a lot to love here. A fun example:

Ryder’s shivering sad girl underwent a kind of ritual sacrifice in 1999, when newcomer Angelina Jolie devoured her in every frame of Girl, Interrupted and licked the screen. But Jolie was quickly isolated and quarantined as an anomaly; she eventually shed the force of her personality and slipped behind the imperial mask of her beauty.

That’s great stuff. That bit comes from what I think is my favorite essay in the book, “The Dream (Girl) Is Over”, which is about movie stars and bodies and mythologizing and evolving silver screen ideals. (Film is a recurring topic in the book. I can relate.)

Movie is the shorthand that preceded talkie. But it’s the latter term that faded away. It’s the movement that sets the form apart (Action!), and the beauty of bright, moving bodies that transfixes.

The essay, among other things, touches on the ideals we’ve offered ourselves on the screen, from the impossibly dreamy Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, to later muscular heroines like Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, Madonna. And, yes, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Oh, also there’s this great aside on how actresses disrobing becomes an important part of the meta-story, “explicit love scenes invariably described as ‘raw,’ ‘real,’ and ‘brave.'”–cf. Girls?).

Another smart observation on how we talk about bodies:

Men queue up to log specious, self-congratulatory elegies, ascribing vague laments for an earlier era’s voluptuousness to the bodies of the women who inhabited it. Women, meanwhile, get lost in arguments about the scourge of vanity sizing. But the body’s centrality is what sets it beside the point: Marilyn Monroe’s measurements were handed out by the same press agents hawking Theda Bara’s false passports; I knew Elizabeth Taylor’s eighteen-inch waist size before it matched my age. Because they look to our hourglass-starved eyes like more generous, “normal” shapes doesn’t make it so, nor does it retro-exempt former standards from their status as standards.

Some other favorite lines? In one essay that talks about brain scans and movie market-testing:

It’s no wonder we have started pair-bonding with our iPhones. In device attachment resides the old struggle between the possessor and the possessed, the shifting sands of desire and consent. What we respond to is not the gadget itself but its promise of some personal and highly specific gratification.

And a related earlier quote, one hazard of our awesome gadgets and the not-quite-hereness they can engender:

Modern cultural memory is afflicted by a kind of dementia, its fragments ever floating around us.

And a related problem:

What we call nostalgia today is too much remembering of too little.

On email’s subtle, sneaky draw:

Email opened up a kind of perpetually empty stage, an endless call for encores.

A bit from an essay on compulsive running and loneliness:

As a way of escape, distance running is the sensory negative of sexual oblivion.

From a chapter on photography:

Especially when they are held out blindly in big crowds, the screens that have replaced the traditional viewfinder appear to function as a kind of second subjectivity, a third eye to cope with a world that is less often collected with any kind of discretion than amassed in daily reality dumps. So that to raise a camera is mostly to remind yourself: Right now I’m here; I’m here right now.

Reminds me of Field Notes: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” A related aside:

I always laughed when a Dutch friend of mine referred to “making” a photo—a translation glitch he couldn’t keep straight. I just thought it sounded funny, but there is something strange about the one art form we talk about in terms of taking, not making.

In her essay reporting on the development of the DSM-5, which also touches on war and addiction, and growing up:

We reach maturity any number of times—biologically, religiously, legally, academically, socially—before the age of twenty-one, but the imputation rarely sticks. The world will not be informed of your various arrivals, the world informs you. […] Slowly, sometimes moment by moment, small choices about whom and how to be beget bigger ones–shading in the background, scaling out the continuum; striking out villains, fleshing in the overlooked–until the story begins to tell itself, with a fully-fledged hero at its center.

Another good line from that essay, one of my favorite observations in the book:

Treating apparently “new” emotional and behavioral disturbances like biological events would seem to be another evasion of a problem the 12-step program makes plain. It feels significant that the first thing someone seeking that program’s help does is walk into a room filled with other people.

So good. There’s much more range here than what my quotes might indicate. You’re likely to find something that works for you, too. Worth a read.

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

Michel Foucault

The Braindead Megaphone (review: 4.5/5)

There’s potential for a doctoral dissertation about The Rhetorical Use of Capital Letters in the Writing Of George Saunders. The usage comes in a couple flavors. There are the ineffable concepts, like Freedom and Humility. There’s the personalization of general categories, like Writers and the Little Guy. There’s the tongue-in-cheek categorization of human sub-groups, like, oh, People Who Analyze Capitalization. And it also appears when it’s simply more amusing, e.g. “Oversize Bright-Colored Toy Ships and Trucks.”
This was only my second try at Saunders. I aborted my attempt of In Persuasion Nation. Maybe it’s good. (I think I read so much non-fiction that I have trouble turning the switch every now and then.) And it wasn’t funny. But The Braindead Megaphone is funny. And it stays funny even though he writes about Serious Things and has a really earnest style.

To wander my way back to the Capitalization Issue, it reminds me of what Daniel Day Lewis said in a recent interview: “Perhaps I’m particularly serious because I’m not unaware of the potential absurdity of what I’m doing.” I think satirists like Saunders might agree. While the writing isn’t always serious, it is sincere, and I get the sense that he really kicks his own ass to come up with this stuff. Most of it is really, really good.

As for the meat of the book, the titular essay is a brilliant take on banal popular media. What’s really wonderful is the way he hedges and offers concessions along the way through his thought experiments. What could be a canned, all-too-familiar diatribe becomes a nice little Journey with George.

Another essay that I liked was about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five. In one part he talks about how Vonnegut gives up on detail:

“Vonnegut was skipping the lush physical details he had presumably put himself into so much danger to obtain. He was assuming these physical details; that is, he was assuming that I was supplying them. A forest was a forest, he seemed to be saying, let’s not get all flaky about it. He did not seem to believe, as I had read Tolstoy did, that his purpose as a writer was to use words to replicate his experience, to make you feel and think and see what he had felt. This book was not a recounting of Vonnegut’s actual war experience, but a usage of it.”

Later, in an essay on Barthelme‘s short story, “The School,” Saunders offers his own thoughts on the writer-reader relationship:

“The writer is right there with us—he knows where we are, and who we are, and is involved in an intimate and respectful game with us. I think of this as the motorcycle-sidecar model of reading: writer and reader right next to one another, leaning as they corner, the pleasure coming from the mutuality and simultaneity of the experience.”

In addition to those gems, there’s some great writing on patriotism in a mock-academic “survey of the literature”; a welcome twist on the tired Letters To & From An Advice Columnist genre; reporting on Minutemen and border patrol; and probably my favorite of a bunch, an awesome essay on what’s so difficult and wonderful about Huckleberry Finn. The only real duds for me were the foreign reporting essays in Dubai and in Tibet. Skip those, and read everything else.