Staff Chat: Ben and Keaton talk Leslie Jamison's THE RECOVERING

Keaton: We’re here today to talk about Leslie Jamison’s masterful new memoir, THE RECOVERING: INTOXICATION AND ITS AFTERMATH.

Ben: Ooh!

KP: Jamison…She’s a very, very talented writer. She started in fiction but now mainly writes nonfiction. She had an excellent collection of essays, THE EMPATHY EXAMS, a few years back. This is her latest release.

BR: didn’t THE EMPATHY EXAMS come out around the same time as Maggie Nelson was gaining some traction in a big way? I feel like that Kerry Howley book came out around then too, THRONE. 

Jamison is sort of this example of the New Essayist — this creative, literary, probing mind that looks at herself through the lens of the outside world… Or looks at the outside world through the lens of herself, whichever way you want to look at it. Kind of part of the heirs apparent to Didion.

KP: Good comparison, I think. In both THE EMPATHY EXAMS and THE RECOVERING, Jamison is very skilled at finding that hinge point between the personal and the universal.

THE RECOVERING is just a masterwork. It’s a memoir of her struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse, but more than that it’s cultural examination of the mystique of substance abuse and creativity, especially as it involves authors… Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys…

BR: — Denis Johnson comes up in it —

KP: — John Berryman —

BR: — Steven King —

KP: — But this cultural idea that authors are drunk, and that is one of the fonts of their creativity.

BR: Drunk and rowdy and kind of wild men, and I say men because the myth is usually related to a kind of “masculine” idea of creation. I think that the most prominent influence in that thinking might be Hemingway or the Beats, a couple generations after.

I think the way she looks at that and interrogates it and fucks with it, you know, is really interesting. Because she kind of traces her own relationship with that idea, right? She starts by thinking about how romantic it was for her to go to Iowa where Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson studied, and how she imagined Raymond Carver like as this great romantic drunken figure on the campus. 

Then as the book goes on (I don’t think this counts as a spoiler), she starts to recognize her own problems with alcohol. She starts to reinvestigate that cultural notion that is pretty much bullshit, that you have to be a drunk madman to write.

KP: well, yes, that you have to be. she is very forthright and evenhanded in her treatment of it. She does say that there’re positive things that you can get out of chemical exploration and creativity. Johnson also kind of explored that same thing. But it all comes back to the same idea: that it’s not necessary, or the only thing of value, or the only way to go about achieving creative greatness.

BR: Well, they weren’t drunken madmen when they wrote necessarily. They’ve kind of lived these steady, sober lives for years before they wrote — you know — CATHEDRAL in Carver’s case or JESUS’ SON in Johnson’s case. There’s one moment in the book where she cites a letter that was sent to Johnson at one point by a fan, basically thanking him for being a model of how to write sober. I thought that was a very moving instance of her cracking that narrative.

Jean Rhys, actually, comes out the saddest figure in the book in a lot of ways.

KP: She’s a sad figure. I guess — if you want the kind of archetypal drunks that she goes through, that’s the sad sack self-pitying school of alcoholism.

BR: She never recovered, right?

KP: But unlike most of these people she lived to be very old. All considering.

But Jean Rhys plays a very prominent role in the book.

We were talking about the archetype of these creative madman drunk male writers. Jamison points out that other female writers who have had just as bad or worse problems with alcohol (Marianne Moore, Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and on and on)… Their alcoholism is always looked at not as a price to be paid for creativity or conduit for it, but as a form of feminine weakness. Jamison herself deals with the internalized shame, I guess, of that cultural projection of drunk women.

So it is a very gendered cultural stereotype that we have with drunk authors as well.

BR: Yeah.

KP: What I like about the book is that she starts off looking at the mystique and mythology behind these writers, like with the ghosts of Carver and Johnson around Iowa City and whatnot.

But as the book goes on, she pulls back the veneer and shows the ugly truth of their problems –– how it hinders their creativity, and hurts their lives and their health, and sometimes ends in their total disillusionment.

BR: And this is not a book that’s only a work of cultural studies, either. What I also want to highlight about it is that she is an incredibly skillful writer at talking about herself and the people around her, and a very observant writer.

The addiction memoir itself, at the heart of the book, is a very powerful story in general. She acknowledges over and over that there is nothing of particular… “excitement” in her addiction. It was kind of run-of-the-mill in some ways… You know what I mean? It wasn’t explosive. You read Mary Carr’s lit and she was, like, driving fast down the road and almost dying all the time…

There’s nothing like that in Jamison’s book. It’s just that sad persistence of when you drink alone too often and it gets to be a problem and gets to be out of hand. What makes the addiction memoir powerful is how normal her experience is, or how average it is. It’s not sensational, it’s just kind of… even. But I’m not trying to diminish it.

KP: That’s a good point though, because it plays back into the cultural stereotype of drunk authors, that they’re going to be destroying stuff, going crazy, waking up out of a blackout like David Foster Wallace going 90 miles an hour in a car, not knowing who he’s in the car with.

Whereas Leslie Jamison, I think, drinks in the way a lot of chronic alcoholics do. Just by herself ad with the sole intent to black out. Binge drinking. Which is very common and not “sexy,” but what it is, is a very real depiction of daily alcoholism.

BR: A lot of the more memorable “scenes” of her as a character in the book are just her alone in her room at night with a bottle of wine and nothing much happening. She has a series of fights with boyfriends, one of whom is more prominent and around longer than the others, and she goes to rehab a couple times.

It follows these traditional points that you have to hit in the addiction memoir: the exhilaration gives way to the problem, gives way to the friends trying to help you, the first attempt at recovery, the relapse, etc. etc.

And it follows all of that, but it is so rich because of everything else that is around it: the cultural stuff, the way she writes this very meta addiction memoir. It becomes a book about itself in a way.

KP: The book definitely reflects back on itself. It really has that therapeutic sense of a cyclical storytelling, a chorus of voices that crop up through it… The community, she says, is so valuable to overcoming substance abuse.

But what I thought also was really telling, and where she so succeeds, is the cultural excitement of the train wreck, rather than what comes after: the “recovering.” That’s really what this book centers on, is how she decides to get clean and stay clean. That’s more than half of the book. She makes it just as riveting and interesting as a story of somebody “going to the dark side.”

It’s one of the fastest 500-page books i’ve ever read.

BR: I was just going to say, I think I read this book in three or four sittings. I just blew through this one.

KP: It’s hard to put down. It’s very engrossing. It’s the best memoir I’ve come across since H IS FOR HAWK. It’s a very personal, very human story that anyone can relate to, but it goes wider than just a single experience.

I will say, I think THE RECOVERING’s going to be one of the best books of the year.

BR: i agree with you.

KP: Cheers.

BR: That’s inappropriate.

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath Cover Image
$30.00
ISBN: 9780316259613
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Little Brown and Company - April 3rd, 2018

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