The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

bae2013Consider an essay. It will be written in the first person and almost certainly the ‘I’ will reflect on their childhood or themselves as a younger person. There will be an important contrast from that period to time to this, perhaps a key moment that resonated throughout the I’s life or it will serve as an explanation for tumultuous events of the present — such as a catastrophic divorce. Did I mention they are probably divorced and bitter about it? Also, at least one parent will be absent and possibly dead. Probably dead. They will yearn for something more than the mundane and may be trying to make up for their wasted twenties.

You have now considered every essay that guest editor Cheryl Strayed chose to feature as 2013’s best essays.

My only experience with the “Best American” series was 2007’s, featuring David Foster Wallace as guest editor, and containing reviews, third person accounts of interesting people, investigative journalism, Iraq war reports, explanations for strange phenomenon such as the Dog Whisperer. While a wide range of topics is still covered, I found myself bewildered by 2013’s specificity. I looked up Cheryl Strayed online and discovered her big hit is Wild, which is, get this: Strayed reflecting on her journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, taken in her early 20’s after her mother died and her marriage ended in ruin.

Conclusion: Cheryl Strayed has very limited interests; or may be a narcissist.

Anyway, my three favorites were:

Keeper of the Flame by Matthew Vollmer — The author’s dad invites him to meet “the Nazi”. Turns out there is a castle filled with a rare and complete set of Third Reich memorabilia in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This combines two key elements that make a great essay: A strange and interesting topic paired with a shall-we-say, moral thrust, that interrogates the reader and their worldview.

The Exhibit Will Be So Marked by Ander Monson — On his thirty-third birthday, Monson asks for friends and family to send him mix-tapes (so that he can evaluate what they think of him and their relationship via their choice of music). He also receives a broken cassette in an unmarked envelope sent from Nebraska City, Nebraska. The author details his attempts to find a way to listen to the tape mixed with a hodgepodge of scenes from his life; a life mix tape. In less adept hands, this could be insufferable, but instead it is very clever and wearily uplifting.

The Girls in My Town by Angela Morales — Childbirth. It’s another topic covered in several essays and this is the best one. Morales, in her early thirties, gives birth and lays in a hospital room a curtain over from a fourteen year old who has just done the same. She goes on to explore the combination of sexism, racism, boredom, and mislaid-hope that has led to an enormous amount of teen pregnancies in her central Californian home of Merced. It is a very good (and I’m a sucker for righteous anger).

Possession by A. S. Byatt

possessionThe astounding part of Possession — affirmed by all who read it — is its attention to detail. A good portion of the novel consists of the love letters of fictional Victorian poets, poems written by these poets, and various journals and biography excerpts of past and present made-up authors. These are convincing. So convincing, that the reader does not spend time considering how convincing they are, but accepts them outright as real poets with a real passion and correspondence. Byatt’s research (and vocabulary) and her ability to integrate these into a novel is impressive and flawless.

Passive, life-mired Roland Mitchell discovers a forgotten love letter from great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (based on a combo of Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson) to another poet, Cristabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti). This launches Roland on a quest to track the movements of Ash and onto a blossoming love affair of his own with Maud Bailey, a scholar and descendent of LaMotte herself. Roland and Maud are combated by a host of antagonists — realized people that also fit convenient stereotypes — a shady American pederast who feels he “owns” the legacy of Randolph Ash, a blonde bully-bro who outperforms Roland in job promotions and once had a brief tryst with Maude, a near-robotic Ash devotee/academic who lacks passion and thus cannot understand the great poet.

The characters all fit a type, and as everyone converges on each other towards the end, the plot feels a ludicrous mirror of a Scooby Doo episode. One could expect villain Mortimer Cropper to exclaim “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddlesome kids/literary scholars!” Byatt is a strong enough writer that the story continues to work, and the characters are well drawn enough to not take the the reader out of the story. Beyond that, though, the plot is absolutely littered with coincidences. Disparate characters run into each other just because they happened to be in the same town, convenient side characters enter the story who just happen to have the ideal profession (i.e. solicitor/lawyer) the heroes require at just this time. That aspect of the novel did start to draw me out of the story. Coincidence-heavy plotting is definitely an irritance of mine.

And while I really enjoyed the second half of the novel, the first half is severely lacking. I considered this was simply because it was setting up the excellent second portion, but I just don’t think so. The pace is stolid, the romance of the Ash and LaMotte restrained. The writing, while still good, is quite dry. Roland is a passive nice-guy with no real drive and Muad is a distant ice-queen. Contrast that to part two where Roland has become a man adrift and Muad is a developed and sympathetic character who probably should have been the primary viewpoint.

But, really, if one half of a book has to be much better than the other, it ought to be the second half, right? As the characters are developed, the Victorian era storyline heats up, and the cast moves to the North English coast and Brittany in such vividly described detail that I’d consider moving my honeymoon there and at the very least, putting it on the must-visit list, it feels like a completely different novel. The mystery, the quest to untangle the poet’s love affair and muse-like inspiration they provided each other comes to feel urgent, even to someone like myself who does not find literary scholarship and academia exactly exciting.

There’s themes about love and sex prevalent in the novel. It seems to be celebrating the notion of waiting for sex like the Victorians did, that something is to be gained by not jumping right into it. The notion feels dated because it is clearly in combat with some sex-politics of the publication age (1990) that does not seems as relevant today. The present-day characters are lamenting the lack of romance and dissection of love into its constituent, sterilized bits, much like Ash and LaMotte had concerns about a world suddenly encountering Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and the absence of a purposeful and romantically inclined God. It’s interesting in the context of the novel, but the idea that sex is just hormones feels eye-roll worthy to me; it’s hard to take it seriously like the novel’s characters do since it feels so passé.

There’s also some straw-men “feminists” referenced in the book, and Byatt sort of highlights Muad as a near-exceptional woman who is not caught up in a sort of frivolous re-writing of literary history like so many of her feminist contemporaries. It’s less of a strike to in-story literary scholarship that Randolph Ash had an affair than it is that Cristabel LaMotte was not a patriarchy-crushing lesbian. Muad is a sort of “exceptional woman” in this framework. It is interesting in the context that Byatt herself has rejected her work being submitted for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction, going so far as to call it a sexist award. That’s certainly a topic for discussion in of itself (and sort of personal since I know my own mother has turned down minority-based promotions in her line of work). But anyway: Possession — it’s pretty good.