Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives

A friend shared her copy of Roiphe´s book of essays, In Praise of Messy Lives. I was unacquainted with Roiphe, but it was the nature of the mentioning that intrigued me most. My friend said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure you’re going to like it. A lot of people really hate her writing” and “I’ll be interested to see your reaction.” But, yet, when I asked what it was that might elicit an extreme reaction from me, I couldn’t really make sense of the answer.

In the end I borrowed the book so I could find out about Roiphe, but also so as to gain a little insight into what my friend thinks of me. I can’t say I have definitive thoughts on either topic.

In Praise of Messy Lives is uneven and, despite Roiphe’s claim that the collection of essays is marked by a commitment to a theme – lives lived to the extreme, the work doesn’t particularly hang together. Although there were things I loved and didn’t love about the book, it seems that this text exists as a natural response to Roiphe’s ideal writing conditions – “a deadline and the Con Ed bill is due.”

The initial essays in the book, those in which Roiphe reflects on her own messy life, are smart and witty and charming in a somewhat snarky fashion. Wonderful. She writes with an amazing voice and opinionated honesty that are admirable. I both wanted to read more and I wanted to see if any of my Brooklyn friends know her so we could get together for coffee next time I am in the area.

But then we moved into a series of essays that ranged from literary criticism to social commentary – facebook, fakebook, twitter, Hillary Clinton, Maureen Dowd, in praise of John Updike and the other chroniclers of sexual (mis)adventures, bellicose internet comments, etc, etc. There is a lot of discussion of feminism in there. Nothing that particularly horrified or impressed. Most of the essays had little impact on me apart from leading to a growing dissatisfaction with the way that the messiness Roiphe praises seems to be the disorder sought by people whose lives are sufficiently and dependably comfortable enough for them to court messiness as a thrilling break from the monotony of a sure thing – status and security.

Privileged parents teach their 7-year-old children how to mix drinks. An elite young adult who grew up with every advantage decides to open a dungeon and make S&M films. It might be that Hillary was not (in good wifely fashion) emotionally undone my Bill’s infidelity so much as she was upset with his mismanagement of their dual-career plans. John Updike, an author whose books I, despite repeated attempts to enjoy, have found  depressing since I first encountered Rabbit Run my freshman year of high school, should be lauded as someone who imagined sex as something that could defeat death. Incidentally, I think this is a common misreading of Updike. In his Rabbit novels sex is the angel of death.

This praise of messiness is a celebration of and even the leaning towards entropy on the part of people who need relief from order – a privileged position in comparison with those who seek to create order out of everyday chaos. Roiphe is writing about messiness largely without risk and as it is viewed from a privileged position that makes that messiness a virtue. Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing to and about a particular audience, but it is disappointing that Roiphe does not indicate that she is aware of the socio-economic particularity of her work. Some people struggle to get their kids into a good public school that will offer the education (and extracurriculars) the parents never had access to. Some children and young adults who have a better chance of ending up in jail for a petty drug offense than of attending college. Many, many people are seeking after security and order that alludes them, their communities, everyone they know. Would Roiphe really suggest that they and their children would be better off if they would just lighten up, break the rules a bit, and let their kids eat dirt?

A day on the roller coasters at an amusement park gets the adrenaline pumping but there is nothing particular virtuous or praiseworthy about having done it.

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