I had just settled down with a glass of wine last Saturday night and was rifling through that day's mail when I spied the new copy of the Atlantic. As I have done each month for the past few years, the first thing I did was turn to see if this was a good month, a Sandra Tsing Loh month. Hooray! It was. Watching back DVDs of "The Wire" would have to wait. But as I scanned the column, I started to panic. The headline: "Let's call the whole thing off." The subhead: "The author is ending her marriage. Isn't it time you did the same?" My reaction was immediate and personal: Wait, I thought, does that mean Sandra is leaving Mike? Immediately thereafter, like someone who had just found out that LiLo and Sam had broken up, I started frantically e-mailing friends at midnight to ask if they, too, had heard the news.
My horror did not come from personal fear for the state of my own domestic bliss (though I live with my partner of the last five years, we are not married). Nor did it come from some sort of intimate relationship with the concerned parties: Sandra Tsing Loh, much to my regret, is a writer I don't know. But in that moment, I felt for the first time that I really understood something new about what the first-person essay -- so in vogue for the past decade and a half -- has meant to us as readers.
As I pointed out in Broadsheet last week, these essays -- about the politics and day-to-day life of sex, dating, marriage and children or lack thereof -- are more often than not written by women; moreover, as a study I quoted last week found, they are the most common form of nonfiction writing by women published in the most prestigious magazines. Plenty of these, of course, have been published by Salon (Anne Lamott's essays, often credited for kicking off the newfound popularity of the form, were published on Salon back when the Life section was known as "Mothers Who Think"). And in some ways they've become, to borrow the title of Lamott's first book, "Operating Instructions," a way to spy on the hideous mistakes, hard-won insights, and daily flimflam of a quirky, hopefully interesting person other than ourselves.
At one time, those of us who read got this vicarious pleasure mostly from reading novels (previously considered a better place to vent the flaws of others and oneself without having to be branded an asshole). But even though I have spent a good portion of the past 10 years working, among other things, as a book critic, in recent years, I've had to admit that the best television -- "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Lost" and the rest of the usual suspects -- are as good and often better at developing a character over time. (This comes from a woman who didn't even own a television for about 15 years.) The reasons for this seem clear: The narrative is episodic, and, unlike most novels -- the vast majority of which, with the exception of series, are read in a matter of days or a week -- we are invited to follow these characters in one-hour increments over the course of years, in their own lives and our own.
This, I realized this past weekend, is the same way I've been reading Sandra Tsing Loh. I can be wildly ambivalent about the personal essay as a form. It's all about the person: If the narrator seems narcissistic, self-absorbed and concerned with trivialities, well, so does the work. But I've never been ambivalent about Loh: I flat-out fucking love her. This is a woman who, when writing on women and work, can admit that for most Americans their jobs come down to "makin' kahpies," who can make fun of the bohemian pretensions of Harvard grad millionaires who insist on wearing grimy Red Sox caps, and admit that her fondness for her own flinty Ramones T-shirt betrays her own Bobo pretensions. She can admit that she spent a year trying to get her kid into the fanciest schools in L.A. but ultimately chose to stick it out in the public schools where she and the Latino and Armenian mothers banded together to get a VH-1 grant for a new music program. She'll tell us about going to a party at a gazillionaire friend's house, and follow it with a zinger about being mistaken for her blond daughter's third-world nanny.
And throughout the past 15 or so years, she has written fondly about her compatriot in the struggle to carve out a career, then a family as a member of what she dubs the urban "middle-class poor" -- her lovable, child-raising, tomato-growing, lowly paid musician husband, Mike, whom she described in last year's memoir, "Mother on Fire" as having "the soul of Mr. Darcy with the income of Mr. Collins." Back in the ‘90s they discovered Ikea and Trader Joe's and sat at home gorging on knock-off Brie on their flimsy sofa, until their tummies were noticeably distended and their sofa kicked to the curb. He was her partner in raising their two little girls, and when Loh freaked out about having to send the eldest to the seemingly crappy elementary school down the street, he responded that he'd love for their daughter to be bilingual (the school was mostly Latino). But there were also signs: Loh wrote in "Mother on Fire" about telling her pierced, Kahlo-loving undergraduates that after 40, "the wheels fall off," and drew what she called a "portrait of a narrative in a post-feminist age," as a circle with a line through it that read: "NO MORE MR. DARCY!" While it seemed like her usual self-deprecating way to cut through idealized, romantic bullshit, perhaps, in retrospect, it was a sign that she, too, was interested in a little romantic illusion?
In some ways, yes. Loh admits that she is "A 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued." Coincidentally, today I also published on Salon an interview with Kate Christensen, whose most recent novel, "Trouble," is about a therapist almsot exactly the same age as Loh who ends her 15-year marriage to rediscover sex and passion. But Loh, though she cops to that one-time old-fashioned sin of adultery, sounds jaded on the long-term prospects of romance altogether. She points out that the reason America may have "a divorce culture" might be because we marry too damn often -- "we both divorce and marry (a projected 90 percent of us) at some of the highest rates on the globe." Most of all, she delivers a scathing indictment of the difficulty of kindling romance in that peculiarly modern invention, the "Companionate Marriage, in which husband and wife each have a career, and they co-parent and co-housekeep according to gender free norms they negotiate." Acknowledging that, as we are all told, "good relationships take work" Loh admits in therapy that that is the one thing she is having the hardest time doing:
Which is not to say I am against work. Indeed, what came out of that afternoon were the many tasks I -- like so many working/co-parenting/married mothers-- have been doing for so many years and tearfully declared I would continue doing. I can pick up our girls from school every day; I can make them dinner and kiss their noses and tell them stories;...I can earn my half -- sometimes more -- of the money; ...I can refinance the house at the best possible interest rate; I can drive my husband to the airport; in his absence, I can sort his mail... Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint home ownership and even platonic male-female friendship. However, in the cluttered forest of my 40s, what I can't authentically reconjure is the ancient dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly "date nights"...Do you see? Given my staggering working mother's to-do list, I cannot take on another arduous home-and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance.
Loh's essay on the demise of her marriage provides the darker counterpoint to the idealized, soft-focused, "date-night" loving Obamas. Last week, Amanda Fortini applied some of Susan Sontag's ideas in "Illness as Metaphor" to show how our current fascination with self-help can lead us to demonize those who seem to refuse to help themselves: "If you can help yourself, then it's your fault if you don't. If there are ways to resuscitate a marriage, however corny or contrived they may seem, you have only yourself to blame if you don't try them." No doubt some will blame Loh for not trying hard enough. But she's never been one to show us the ideal; just what's real. Good luck, Sandra and Mike, and please, let us know how it all shakes out.