In Praise of Messy Lives, by Katie Roiphe
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The Dial Press, 265 pages, $25
Talk about validation. Katie Roiphe must have had “told you so” written all over her face after learning about the recent Stanford University study that downplays the benefits of eating organic food.
Poking fun at those Americans who obsess about organic, healthy living to the point of forgetting how to enjoy life is certainly an overriding theme of “In Praise of Messy Lives” – an anthology of essays by the New York journalist and writer who’s made a career out of taking aim at sacred cows, whether they be distinguished writers and columnists or the widely shared beliefs and values of progressive Americans.
In this collection of mostly previously published pieces, Roiphe shoots far and wide, covering issues as diverse as divorce and single parenthood, incest as a literary device, domination and submission in conventional and less conventional sexual relationships, great female writers, Hillary Clinton, America’s obsession with “Mad Men” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and the torment of getting your kid into the right New York school.
It’s clear that she loves to draw fire and is not afraid to flaunt her many politically incorrect views. The daughter of the prominent feminist Anne Roiphe, she originally carved a niche for herself back in the 1990s, not long after graduating from college, when she wrote “The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism” – a book that questions whether women aren’t partly to blame for date rape.
In this new collection of largely personal essays, Roiphe emerges as a fun-loving sort of gal who puts her owns needs and pleasures above everything else. A single mother of two, she’s not the type to let her kids cramp her style. She isn’t one, for example to allow a sick child keep her away from a hot rendezvous at the local bar. She’s someone you might have enjoyed hanging out with in college, but if you had any sense, you probably wouldn’t have left her alone in a room with your boyfriend. And if you need further explanation of why not, just read the essay “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night,” which recounts what happened on the roof of her parents’ New York apartment building one summer day when her best friend’s boyfriend happened to drop by for a visit.
Roiphe is at her best when she takes America’s elites to task for their growing obsession with healthy eating and living (hence the title) and their tendency to see it as a be-all and end-all. “We are bequeathed on earth one very short life,” as she writes, “and it might be good, one of these days, to make sure we are living it.” She is equally astute in her observations about modern-day parenting practices in America, specifically the rising trend of what has come to be called “helicoptering,” referring to a tendency to hover protectively over every part of their children’s lives.
In the essay “The Great Escape,” originally published in New York Magazine, she pokes fun at a father at her child’s preschool who demands to know the exact ingredients of the cookies being served at snack time and precisely how many cookies each child is allowed to eat. Waxing nostalgic for another era, she writes: “I remember the parties my parents threw, the grown-ups eating and drinking wine in the house, sometimes spilling out into the garden to smoke; the children running around outside, in bathing suits and sweatshirts, catching fireflies in jars and no one worrying about exactly when we went to bed or whether we had four pieces of cake.”
In “The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives,” an essay first published in The New York Times, Roiphe returns to the same theme to explain the attraction of “Mad Men,” the hit TV series that spotlights the advertising industry in early 1960s America. “The phenomenal success of the show,” she writes, “seemed to rely at least in part on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior to our relatively staid and enlightened times.”
Or, as she laments later on in this particularly insightful passage: “It seems that some of us are so busy channeling our energies into doing what is good for us, for our children, into responsible and improving endeavors, that we may have forgotten, somewhere in the harried trips to Express Yourself Through Theater or Trader Joe’s, to seize the day. Of course, people still have hangovers and affairs, but what dominates the wholesome vista is a sense that everything we do should be productive, should be moving toward a sane and balanced end, toward the dubious and fragile illusion of ‘healthy.’ The idea that you would do something just for the momentary blissful escape of it, for intensity, for strong feeling, is out of fashion.”
Also incisive are her descriptions of what parents in New York are forced to endure these days to ensure their precious offspring a place in one of the city’s top secondary - a virtual pre-condition for acceptance into an Ivy League college, which, in turn, is a virtual pre-condition for a guaranteed well-paying job. And when the little one does not get into the school of choice, as she observes, the only option left for any self-respecting parent these days is to trash the “materialistic culture” of that particular school and those who would send their offspring there.
As Roiphe notes in “Whose School Is It, Anyway?” originally published in the Financial Times: “If you, from the outside, are having trouble seeing how their life – with its long summers at the beach, winters in the Caribbean, the sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side, the helpful doorman, the ubiquitous housekeeper, the $1,000 boots from Barneys – is so different in its values and messages from these other, materialistic parents at the other school, we will assume that is a problem with your clarity and understanding.”
No need to pity her, though. Roiphe is a product of the very same privileged New York milieu she ridicules here. And it doesn’t look as though she’s moving her kids so fast to the one-room schoolhouse in Montana she fantasizes about, where equality and simplicity rule.
Surprisingly, not once in this collection of essays does Roiphe mention her Jewish background, though being a Jewish New Yorker seems to inform much of her criticism of modern culture as well as her often-unabashed chutzpah. The closest she gets to addressing even borderline Jewish issues is in the essay “The Naked and the Conflicted,” originally published in The New York Times Book Review, in which she complains that the prominent male writers of this generation, among them Jewish icons like Michael Chabon, simply do not know how to write sex scenes with the same gusto and flair as their predecessors, predominant among them the great Philip Roth.
Hillary Clinton fans will take solace in “Elect Sister Frigidaire,” an essay from 2008 that tries to make sense of the widespread disenchantment then prevalent among women with the then- (and perhaps soon-to-be-again) presidential hopeful and future secretary of state. “Could it be that we like the idea of strong women, but we don’t actually like strong women?” Roiphe asks. “If we are being entirely honest, we have to admit that there is often an intolerance on the part of powerful women toward other powerful women, a cattiness, a nastiness, that is not part of any feminist conversation I have ever heard. It is so much easier, so much cooler, so much more appealing, to have a Hillary for President button when Hillary is not, in fact, running for president.”
Maureen Dowd, on the other hand, is a powerful woman who clearly does not make the grade with Roiphe, as the title of the essay, “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?” (a play on the title of Dowd’s book “Are Men Necessary?”), originally published in Slate, suggests. Roiphe takes Dowd to task for using her own life, in particular her inability to find lasting love, as the basis for gross generalizations – in this case, that men don’t like smart women.
The problem is that Roiphe also uses her own life experiences to draw very wide-reaching conclusions about human behavior and society’s attitudes. After she gets divorced, as she recounts in the essay “The Great Escape,” her friends and acquaintances are surprised and even a bit put off to discover that Roiphe is actually happy. Her conclusion is that society can’t accept the fact that a woman would be better off without a man.
Based on her own experiences as a single mom, she is quick to conclude in the essay “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” that modern society is also not ready to accept women raising children on their own. “In spite of our exquisite tolerance for all kinds of lifestyles,” she argues, “we have a wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome, our enlightened modern version of shame.” Since, as she herself notes, more than half the babies born in the United States today to women under 30 are raised by single moms, this conclusion seems rather questionable.
One last piece of advice: If sadomasochism is not your thing and you have little interest in what draws people to whips and leather straps, feel free to skip over the last and by far longest essay in the collection, “Whiplash Girlchild in the Dark.” Trust me, you will not have missed a whole lot.
Judy Maltz writes for Haaretz English Edition.