on 13 January 2013
In Praise of Messy Lives (2012) collects thirty articles by the journalist and academic Katie Roiphe. They originally appeared in various periodicals including The New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Financial Times, and the online magazine Slate.
The articles are arranged into four sections. First up is a group of autobiographical essays. This is followed by a suite of book reviews and overviews, with the focus on recent American luminaries such as Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and John Updike. The third section contains articles that might be called political, at least if that term is given the feminist expansion so that the personal is political and sexual politics counts. Finally, there is a section on various Internet phenomena: Twitter, Facebook, trolls, Gawker.
A theme developed in several articles is the acceptability, even the praise-worthiness, of the 'messy life'. Roiphe does not mean a life which is messy in the Iris Murdoch-John Bayley sense: ankle-deep clutter round the house, field mice in the car etc. She means a life which diverges from the template of a married couple living under one roof with their children.
Roiphe, it transpires, scores high marks for messiness:
'I have two children, with two different fathers, neither of whom I am living with. It did take me a little while to achieve quite this level of messiness, but I did it in the end.'
She stamps on the idea that this mode of living could possibly have any detrimental effects on her offspring:
'In spite of our exquisite tolerance for all kinds of lifestyles, we have a wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome,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. It malingers, this idea; it affects us still.'
Roiphe sees in single motherhood virtues such as vividness, intensity, freedom, momentum. She exorts us to Seize the Day because you Only Have One Life.
As a stylist, Roiphe is admirable. Her writing is clear and precise and she has little time for the groupthink phrases and opinions which make so many American academics unreadable. She also has a Magpie talent for finding gems in other people's writing: probably the funniest thing in the book is an extract from one of the sex scenes in The Counterlife by Philip Roth.
In Praise of Messy Lives is a curiously American work (Roiphe is a New Yorker) and the English reader, accustomed to a more discreet and less brassy mode of address, may find some aspects uncongenial. The first is the degree of self-exposure which the author finds desirable. In one chapter, for example, she tells us about a college episode in which she slept with her best friend's boyfriend: 'He brought me a warm washcloth afterward, which sickened me slightly, and embarassed me'. You may feel this is Too Much Information.
Also off-putting to the English reader is the implicit self-congratulation which runs through everything. How wonderful I am to have a messy life! Isn't being a single mother just fantastic! And great for the kids too! The title of the book should really be In Praise of Messy Lives: Like Mine. (In fact, maybe she should have cut to the chase and gone with In Praise of Me.)
As for whether the Roiphean messy life really is quite as topping and tickety-boo as it is presented here, of course, de gustibus non disputandum and I would defend her right to live exactly as she wants to. But given the choice between Roiphe's domestic arrangements and those of, say, Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, I know which I'd chose.
on 9 September 2013
Intelligent, brave, inspiring and thought-provoking, this is the kind of voice our generation has been lacking. Roiphe's take on 21st-century feminism, as well as her sharp observations of contemporary life and culture are refreshingly different, compelling, convincing. Surely, some of her conclusions may provoke some and disturb others, but isn't this what a great thinker is supposed to do? And even if you don't quite get her, do read the book if only to admire her impressive ability to craft a sentence.
on 11 October 2014
Not what I was expecting, but this collection of essays is definitely something to look into. Katie Roiphe's voice is extremely entertaining and so unique, witty and humourus. There is very little in the world that is not examined within those pages, with the occasional joke or personal anecdote.
If you're into non-fiction (or trying to understand how to write really good essays eheh), I would give it a go!