In Praise Of Messy Lives Essays About Life

What happens to a contrarian in midlife? If she’s Katie Roiphe, 44, controversial author and go-to gender critic, she doesn’t lose her taste for drama. She does, however, grow more interested in experiences beyond her own. In short, she matures, adding to her incisive intelligence and gift for turning a provocative phrase, a hue of humility.

Roiphe traces becoming an independent woman of a certain age in “In Praise of Messy Lives,” her worthwhile, if mixed, new collection of essays, virtually all of which have already been published elsewhere. The best deal with her role as a single mother, rejecting the mandate to self-erase. In the post-feminist age, who matters more, mother or child? Roiphe chooses the former. But she’s defensive, extolling in her introduction the alternative virtues of a “messy life,’’ while decrying “a cultural preoccupation with healthiness above all else, a veiled judgment toward anyone who tried to live differently.”

This battle — between her individual freedom and thirst to be admired as a parent — is startling. After all, she’s spent her career flouting the mainstream. In the past decade, Roiphe has dropped from the gilded status of Ivy League graduate to the ranks of single mothers, a group that often attracts — fairly or not — pity and sometimes disdain. Divorced, with two young children, one of whom was born out of wedlock, Roiphe now has greater reason to want to tip the scales in favor of the educated bohemian.

Certainly, her interest in unconventional women is revealed here by her pieces on renowned female authors, including Jane Austen, Maureen Dowd, and Joan Didion: gifted figures all familiar with the single state. But her impulse to offend the majority of her gender remains on display; she’s included her recent Newsweek cover story on working women’s submissive fantasies, following the best-selling status of the romance-porn novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

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In April, Roiphe enraged feminists by linking a female desire to be dominated in bed to more women achieving pay parity with men. Her logic confounded many. But when it comes to politics, Roiphe’s are misunderstood. She remains less a feminist than an individualist, albeit one who’s often framed what’s good for her as advancing sisterly interests.

In 1993, Roiphe, then 24, rebuked college coeds protesting sexual violence. In her debut book, “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus,” she groused, “Now instead of liberation and libido, the emphasis is on trauma and disease.” Like a sex advocate for smart girls, ages 18-25, she dismissed caution, sniffing: “It’s a difficult backdrop for conducting one’s youth.” Some were shocked by her cavalier concern: that focus on STDs and date rape might stymie erotic adventure. But her yen for passion remains the drumbeat for her writing.

Today, Roiphe still writes hungrily of escapade, but her take can be tempered by self-reflection. And her increased interest in others is a plus, not a minus. Indeed, Roiphe is at her most winning when she admits to common experiences, like loss. Still, she’s offended by friends’ concern about her divorce in her essay “The Great Escape’’ — as if their concern that she’s grappling with grief suggests that she’s just ordinary.

Feeling wrecked by a breakup isn’t mandatory. But neither is kindness always motivated by schadenfreude. If Roiphe is herself spurred by competitive impulse, her prose is so vivid that it’s hard to look away, even when she’s at her most crowing. In “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night,’’ she compares having an affair with her best friend’s love during college to gutting fish, reveling at the ruin, the “liver, kidney, roe, splayed open on the slick wooden docks, for all to see.”

Even now, thrill lies in flouting convention. “The true stigma of divorce, at this particular moment in time, is that of failing as a parent,” she gripes in one essay, then describes in another leaving her two children at night: “I go off in a car to meet a man at a hotel bar. This will seem like the wrong structure to many people.” For a contrarian, isn’t that the point?

Susan Comninos is a writer in New York. Her journalism has appeared in The Atlantic Online, Christian Science Monitor, and Jewish Daily Forward, among others.

It is always heartening, when a writer sets about parsing the culture, to know that they have proper academic qualifications. Reassured (and perhaps a little humbled), we read on. Roiphe is the single parent of two children, Violet (10) and Leo (three), by different partners. “The structure of my household is messy, bohemian, warm,” she writes.

This line of thought – that people with opinions different from her own are unconsciously expressing some deep flaw in their own lives – recurs on several occasions in these essays. In “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice”, a reflection on single parenthood, she writes, “I… can’t help noticing that the people talking about a 'healthy’ environment are often the same people talking about 'working’ on their relationships. They are often the denizens of couples therapy and date nights in restaurants that serve hand-cured pancetta and organic local fennel…”

That repeated “often” is intriguing. And Lord knows what organic fennel has to do with single parenthood. Though so baleful is the spin that Roiphe puts on that innocent vegetable that I shall never regard it in quite the same way again.

Roiphe is a lively critic of other female writers, including Joan Didion and The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whom she accuses of relying on the “faux journalism of women’s magazines” to support her “clever stereotyping”. “She cobbles together anecdotal evidence from people she encounters,” writes Roiphe. “It would be one thing if Dowd were writing pure, straightforward polemic… but Dowd is pretending to cover cultural trends with journalistic accuracy, and it is this pretence that gives her arguments a shoddy, makeshift feel.”

There is an interesting bit of manoeuvring in this passage, for Roiphe is not averse to anecdotal evidence, but she seems to be suggesting that her own cultural analyses are somehow of a superior order to Dowd’s.

Certainly she makes free use of literary quotation – though not always to happy effect. An essay on New York schools begins thus: “When TS Eliot wrote about the cruelest month 'mixing memory and desire’, he might also have had in mind that this is the season of school admissions in New York City.” Or not.

An oddity of this collection is that although the original publishers of the essays are credited, none is dated. The effect is bizarre: Didion is lambasted for being insufficiently self-revealing in an essay that turns out to have appeared beforethe publication of her candid memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking(2005). An essay on why women don’t like Hillary Clinton, written during Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, has a shifty footnote admitting that “she is less of a lightning rod than she once was”.

Essays on Facebook and internet trolling sound quaint enough to have been written by one’s granny, rather than a hip young (ish – Roiphe is 45) cultural commentator.

In assembling this collection, Roiphe and her publisher evidently chose what they regarded as her best work. Periodical journalism is of its nature perishable stuff. Only the very sharpest survives the transition to hard covers.

Roiphe’s writing, with its catchy style and vigorously expressed opinions, is entertaining, but her analytical skills are nothing like as profound as that proudly brandished doctorate in literature might lead one to hope.

In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe

288pp Canongate, £12.99

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