The New York Times “Bookends” column asked in September whether this is a “golden age for women essayists,” as some of the most talked-about nonfiction releases of the year — Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, to start — happen to have been written by women. They’re also books that are probing, searching, and at points, confessional.
Yet in the NYT article, Wild author Cheryl Strayed filets the question, pointing out that putting “woman” in front of the title “essayist” takes it out of the realm of searching and instantly puts it in its own category. But there is something that feels new about the interest in Gay and Jamison’s work. It’s the patience to let someone find a topic, circle around it, and draw out both moving personal observations and experience, on top of addressing essential questions: how should a person be? Can you experience other people’s pain? I don’t know whether their books would work without the skillfully deployed life stories, something that could be called confessional.
It’s easy to want to classify the ephemeral searching of this year’s popular essay questions as something that’s explicitly female and confessional. (The female confessional is certainly its own engine in Internet writing: e.g., xoJane.) But I’m not sure whether that’s the right term: perhaps it is the classical tradition of the essay, or how the writer approaches an essay when you’re not writing for money, per se. When I think of prominent male essayists, the monsters and bestsellers that come to mind like David Sedaris and Chuck Klosterman, the overall effect of their work is something like tap-dancing. They’re there to entertain. There is no way that you ever really feel their pain. There’s an absolute avoidance of the confessional, of real emotional feelings.
By contrast, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, by short story author and writer’s writer Charles D’Ambrosio, is an exciting essay collection because it takes ideas and heady, essayistic topics — whales, hell houses, the overused, wheezing corpse of J.D. Salinger — and it manages to make something new out of them. The story behind Loitering is of some interest, as it’s technically a reprint of D’Ambrosio’s 2005 collection Orphans, which sold out its run; but this version also contains several new essays. Every one is a pleasure, diamond-cut and sharp in its incisive observations on how to be a human.
D’Ambrosio is a fluid stylist, able to turn a sentence so it hits you in the heart — “You want to find yourself in the flow of time, miraculously relieved of your irrelevance” — tossed off so casually that he makes writing this well look easy. But he’s also a strikingly emotional writer, willing to plumb the depths of male feeling and male relationships in his work. Throughout the book, you get glimpses of his hardscrabble family, of what it was like to grow up poor in the Pacific Northwest. But then he gets to an essay that wrestles with J.D. Salinger — “Salinger and Sobs” — and he manages to show what matters about this writer’s work in a new light, braiding it with the story of his brother, Danny, who killed himself; and his brother Mike, who jumped off a bridge, and, cruelly, lived.
D’Ambrosio sees “suicide and silence” throughout Salinger’s work, and for him, The Catcher in the Rye looms like a dark shadow. “The feelings Salinger’s trying to pinpoint don’t have much to do with the fluctuating moods of a representative teen… to explore a disturbing and extreme loss of identity that leaves this one boy completely alone.” Danny’s death left D’Ambrosio alone, in a similar fashion: “Since my brother died I haven’t slept a single night alone with the lights off; I wake up afraid, and I have to know where I am… my brother’s death has extended the vivid fears of my childhood into my adult life.”
Catcher is written in brackets — it begins in a mental institution, it ends with a shrug, noting that Holden shouldn’t said anything at all. That shape shows that “suicide is in the wings,” because for the living, we want our stories to have power, shape, and meaning. It’s not like that for Holden. And extending the metaphor, perhaps Salinger’s legendary silence was also, in its way, its own suicide.
A topic like the work of J.D. Salinger feels so tiring, overworked, already talked about to death — but the care and tenderness that the writer shows towards the sensitivity in Salinger’s work, and how that fits in with D’Ambrosio’s own troubles and difficulties, is moving. There’s a vulnerability and tenderness here that takes what could be just an essay about a writer that you could nearly write yourself into another level. It’s one of the highlights of Loitering, but it’s just one note in a murderer’s row of essays that, in their own way, manage to crack the world open, leaving you blinking in the light.