Last year it was all about divorced self absorption and the shadow of dead parents. What’s the theme this year, eh? Guest editor John Jeremiah Sullivan launches the book* with the hardline stance of the granddaddy-of-all-essays Michel de Montaigne: by examining oneself, one can examine all humanity.
And this is how the essays tie to one another. A writer investigates something — say, the burning man festival, child abuse, or a rare disease — and extrapolates it far beyond the personal to a universal shared experience. Typically death is involved. Death of self, death of parents, death of innocence, death of children, and so on. The Ultimate Concern. Lo, us poor creatures who became aware of our own guaranteed annihilation.
The thing about these essays is they are almost never bad or even mediocre; An essay on being introduced as a public speaker, the only piece that doesn’t quite mesh with Sullivan/Montaigne’s universal appeal theme is curiously the only one I straight up didn’t like. But. There’s also very few that are exceptional. The best essay in the book I had already read and I’ve already forgotten several of them.
The Best Ones:
Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy — A 5 month pregnant woman stubbornly decides to fly to Ukraine for a journalism piece. More to prove she can do it to herself and everyone else rather than any pressing political-writing need.Then the pain starts. Chilling, awe-inspiring, and hard to forget. I read this months ago, but it was just as powerful the second time around.
The Man at the the River by Dave Eggers — An American man and his Sudanese friend rest by a river; The Sudanese wants to wade the river but the American does not for fear of catching an infection in a deep gash on his leg. Cultural differences abound. This is almost a parable. No one is named and it’s very short, but perfectly encapsulates its theme: a westerner desperately trying to avoid being a stereotype, even as it inevitably occurs.
The Devil’s Bait by Leslie Jamison — Jamison attends a conference in support of Morgellons disease, a rare affliction that may or may not even be ‘real’ and affects people differently. They might feel worms crawling out of their skin, or get very itchy, or have little crystals start protruding from their flesh. The professional medical community is fairly sure it’s a psychological problem, but the affected patients gather, trying to take pictures or bring ziplocked evidence of their foreign growths. Or just for moral and social support. Jamison wonders if it honestly matters whether the symptoms are ‘real’ — that is, actual organic crystals or worms protruding from skin. If the suffering is so acutely felt, shouldn’t that be all that’s required for our empathy?
*OK, so Sullivan’s essay doesn’t actually start the book. There’s a brief introduction by series editor Robert Atwan, who has been running this every year since 1985, the year I was born. His topic is nothing less than the assault on Truth and Free Speech and Censorship in America. It’s embarrassingly out of touch and feels profoundly old.
His adversary of choice are ‘trigger warnings’, which he totally mischaracterizes to suit his point of an America in danger of censorship. Trigger warnings are bits of text preceding a piece, warning of potentially upsetting content. Not upsetting like a fly in your spaghetti, not upsetting like a bad piece of world news ruining your mood, but the sort of upsetting Great-Great Uncle Jim, trench veteran of WWI, felt when he was diving for cover, dazed and terrified at any old loud noise. It’s to stop people who have suffered greatly from having to relieve that suffering or potentially trigger a PTSD response. And indeed, the two back-to-back child abuse essays in 2014 (a mean trick of listing things in alphabetical order) are devastating, important, and extremely well written; but I would never ask someone who had experienced anything so terrible to read either without warning.
Instead, Atwan sees trigger warnings as a content endorsement for the general ‘young’ American populace to avoid reading anything that makes them uncomfortable. He also refers to a story written in 1980’s Baltimore street vernacular as ‘A Clockwork Orange-esque’. Uh. Being embarrassed by Grandpa here…