Could Leslie Jamison please stop sitting on the fence?

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

Leslie Jamison is creating quite a stir in America. Her first collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, went straight to the New York Times bestseller list, and this second collection comes crowned in laurels: ‘She’s an unstoppable force of nature,’ says her American editor. ‘This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best,’ says Eleanor Catton. Stephen King calls her ‘required reading’, and early reviewers on the website Goodreads describe this book as ‘genius’, ‘astounding’, ‘resplendent’ and ‘epiphanic’.

Because she is a woman who writes essays, Jamison has been compared with Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm and Susan Sontag, but she is the antithesis of her predecessors. A recovered alcoholic, Jamison speaks the lingo of sharing, gratitude and moral righteousness (in her acknowledgements she thanks those friends ‘who simply helped me survive my own life’). She trades in platitudes, believes that scepticism contains an ‘ethical failure’, and ‘has doubts about doubt’. As an ‘expression of kinship and curiosity’ with the world, she has the words ‘Nothing human is alien to me’ tattooed on her arm. She thus carries her heart on her sleeve: there is no experience she can’t relate to; her belief system is ‘tolerant enough to hold everything as equally valid’. If Didion, Malcolm and Sontag are caviar from a live fish, Jamison is a side serving of kale.

Divided into three sections, Make It Scream, Make It Burn is about outsiders and the power of love. The opening essay, ‘52 Blue’, describes the discovery in 1992 of a whale with an audio signature of 52 hertz (the songs of most blue whales have a frequency of 15 to 20 hertz). The creature apparently swims alone, singing to himself; while no other whales respond to him, a whole school of humans have reached out to his pain in tweets, such as #Forever Alone and #SadLife. The bio note of one of his Twitter accounts, @52Hurts, reads: ‘I am no symbol, no metaphor… I am a whale.’

Jamison, like an irony-free Louis Theroux, interviews some of those whose lives the whale has touched. ‘How do you know he wasn’t sent here to heal us, and his song is a healing song?’, asks Leonora, who discovered 52 Blue when she came out of a six-month coma. Joan Didion would snort with derision, but Jamison suspends her judgment, reasoning:

Maybe every song is a healing song if we hear it in the right mood. When we pour our sympathy on to 52 Blue, we aren’t feeling for a whale, exactly. We’re feeling for what we’ve built in his likeness. But that feeling still exists. It still matters.

The second essay is about those who think they have lived a previous life. ‘When I told people what I was writing about,’ Jamison says, in what becomes her refrain, ‘they often said “Wait, WHAT?”.’ She listens to the story of a Louisiana toddler who thinks he was formerly a fighter pilot shot down by the Japanese, and again suspends judgment.  ‘Was it naive or even ethically irresponsible to believe I should find common ground with everyone?’ she asks, but it’s only a rhetorical question. While I applaud her broad church approach to human experience, I wonder why it necessitates such bad writing as: ‘We say, Wow. We say it again. We stay humble. We walk towards the lights.’

Another essay is about an online simulation game called Second Life in which participants imagine themselves beautiful and rich. When Jamison told her friends about this, they reacted with ‘a mildly bemused look’. It’s easy to mock, but yet again she suspends her judgment. On this occasion, she sagely concludes that ‘the impulse to escape is universal’.

The second section, ‘Looking’, is about photography, and the same formula applies. In the longest essay, Jamison applauds Annie Appel, who has photographed the same Mexican family over 25 years and ‘doesn’t apologise for being earnest’. The last essays are directly autobiographical, and here the solipsism underlying her empathy takes grip. Reflecting on her father, Jamison realises that ‘his loneliness had lied to me’ (in which case he is not unlike 52 Blue). Her mother’s tribute at his funeral ‘created a solid surface around the hollowness in me where grief should have been’. Of other people’s weddings, Jamison reflects on the fact that ‘we go distances to celebrate the love of people we love, but sometimes it hurts the heart to stand alone on an empty road and think what am I doing here?’

Like all those things that are meant to improve our health, these essays can only be defined by what they lack: they are humour-free, low on ideas and with no added flavour. They show us what thinking looks like once the traction has been removed. Whether Jamison’s pieties will be popular in the UK is yet to be seen.

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