The title essay in Lucy Grealy's collection "As Seen on TV: Provocations" begins casually: "So, for reasons that will become obvious, I've changed a few identifying details in the following anecdote." The anecdote concerns Grealy's appearance on a daytime talk show whose topic is triumph over "horrendous physical suffering." Grealy is invited to surprise a guest, a man who was kidnapped, tortured and almost buried alive, who found comfort during his recovery in "Autobiography of a Face," Grealy's mordant memoir of her own experience with a disfiguring cancer of the jaw. The essay ends with a surprise twist to Grealy's encounter with the guest, and with Grealy's thoughts about people's fascination with celebrity and disability.
With its informal tone and its attempt to link a personal experience to larger social meanings, "As Seen on TV" is characteristic of the collection. As in "Autobiography of a Face," what is most admirable in this collection is Grealy's refusal to pretend that suffering is always ennobling. For example, she is frank about her own capacity for mean-spiritedness. In an essay called "My God," about the petty comforts as well as the transcendence offered by religion, she confesses to being at one time "jealous of a woman who had cervical cancer; I thought she got to have all the 'benefits' of a hard experience but didn't have to suffer any permanent visible scars." We've all had this sort of self-serving response to the suffering of others, but we are not all so disarmingly willing to admit it.
Grealy is at her most insightful, in fact, in continuing to map the territory that she began exploring in "Autobiography of a Face": both the intimate and the public impact of pain and disfigurement; the difficulties -- highlighted by her experiences, but shared to some extent by most of us -- of growing into self-acceptance under the ruthless scrutiny of a spectacle-oriented, hypersexual commodity culture. She is astute about the perversity of the ways in which the media packages suffering. She wonders why, for example, when she appears on Oprah Winfrey's show, the guests are "four women, all of whom have been through actual horrendous suffering, having to sit centered around this guy (and he was sitting there, like the king, in the center) just because he's an expert, which he is only because he wrote a self-help book."
A good question -- but the language in which she chooses to ask it highlights an exasperating feature of the collection: Grealy's strident informality is frequently indistinguishable from sloppiness. The breathless sentence structure and the playground diction ("actual horrendous suffering," "just because") get old very quickly. It doesn't help that Grealy claims to be accomplishing a stylistic intervention in the reader's intellectual development. She declares proudly that she is being "relentlessly vernacular ... which makes this essay the embodiment of exactly what I was taught not to write in high school." Although "you might think it's a good idea to write a formal essay and sound smart ... what's also happening is that you're being taught the value of neat, containable ideas, which is a total sham" because "the truly interesting (and radical) ideas are usually rather sloppy and run-on."
This specious opposition between formal but empty and sloppy but "truly interesting" puts Grealy squarely in a long, if not particularly proud, tradition of American anti-intellectualism -- the same tradition that leads many citizens to be turned off by Al Gore because he "sounds smart" and has committed to paper some carefully worked out ideas. But as Grealy would, I'm sure, concede, it does not follow that because George W. Bush frequently fails to sound smart, he is the "truly interesting (and radical)" candidate.
Unfortunately, it also does not follow that because Grealy writes colloquially and sometimes chooses dopey questions over conclusions ("What if a species is to an individual what our sense of self is to our own cells?") her insights are interesting or radical. The book's subtitle, "Provocations," positions Grealy as a gadfly, a deflater of pretensions, but her targets are frequently easy -- the culture of celebrity, the fashion industry, the rhetoric of the religious right. Her revelations are hardly shocking: that clothing with an originally rebellious or practical purpose, such as motorcycle boots or jodhpurs, may be appropriated as fashion by people who do not ride motorcycles or horses ("Fool in Boots"); that "beauty is only an easy label for a complex set of emotions (feelings of safety and grace and well-being)" ("Nerve"); that the tango as danced in 20th century New York is more about salesmanship than about passion" ("What It Takes").
In her preface, Grealy confesses that "most of my magazine pieces get killed because I get carried away and then can't bring myself to neuter the results." If the first part of this sentence seems disarmingly frank, the second suggests at best a lack of self-scrutiny, at worst a refusal to listen. Perhaps what her readers might ask of Grealy is not that she "neuter" her intimate, often witty voice, but that she respect her readers' intelligence, as well as her own, by not confusing the personal with the self-indulgent, or sloppiness with subversion. There is nothing wrong with sounding, as well as being, smart.