It seems mawkish now, even by the standards of children’s books, but The Lovables was published as a runaway cultural trend was cresting across North America: the self-esteem craze. If you grew up, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember this sort of material, as well as goofy classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was. A certain ethos took hold during this time: It was the job of schools to educate, yes, but also to instill in children a sense of their own specialness and potential.
It wasn’t just schoolkids. During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.
My first exposure to the hybrid genre that combines the critical essay with the lyric movements and methods of poetry came when I heard Maureen McLane read from her National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated book My Poets. That night, McLane read from a chapter called “My Elizabeth Bishop / (My Gertrude Stein).” I don’t remember how McLane introduced the audience to the book’s project, but various reviewers describe the book as “experimental essays” or “part memoir and part criticism.” My Poets foregrounds what most criticism only briefly (if at all) acknowledges: that a writer’s desire to critically explore the work of another writer often springs from a personal source. The writer-critic wants to explore the work that has shaped them personally, or that their own creative work is in dialogue with. In academia, especially, we are groomed to believe that there is only one method of exploration. McLane’s reading was the first time I realized that this wasn’t the case.
Sex that doesn’t happen, sex that’s embarrassing, sex that’s shameful and painful—is that all there is? No, sex is always with us. But in our literature it is subject to cycles of repression and liberation, ecstasy and shame, arousal and quieting. The history of the American novel is a history of sex.
Denis Johnson was not my teacher or mentor. We did not have any correspondence; I was never introduced to him by our few mutual friends, and even though he was my favorite writer I never dared to ask for a blurb or any other kind of help. (For me, it would have been like asking God for a blurb: a purely fantastical notion.) I met Johnson only once in person, a brief interaction that was extraordinarily embarrassing for me and probably twice as unbearable for him. (This outcome was my fault, not his. I’m sure he would have been generous, had I given him the chance. I did not give him the chance.)
The relationship I had with Johnson was not a personal one, and yet from my end it was intimate, characterized by the great affection and appreciation we feel toward the writers of the books that mean the most to us. No one’s books have meant more to me than Johnson’s, whose novels and poems I credit with having saved my life when I was twenty years old or so, a perhaps moderately hyperbolic statement that nevertheless feels largely true.
But while Friedan critiqued writers like Jackson for publishing stories in women’s magazines that suggested they were “just housewives,” Jackson was hardly paralyzed by Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” As Franklin notes, the imperfection of Jackson’s family tales, in pulling back the curtain and allowing for a view of domestic dysfunction, served a subversive function. Jackson was not perfect, and her stories suggested other women likewise were not and need not be. The world would not end were a floor unscrubbed or a dish unwashed. Children, while a joy to her life, were not made to be the center of the Hyman-Jackson universe. As for her appearance, Jackson suffered from insecurity, but not enough to stop her from indulging in drink and all the “beautiful and lovely and fascinating foods mankind has devoted himself to inventing.” Women could be aware of the ideal, they could feel its pressure, but as demonstrated by Jackson, they could accept and reject elements to fit their individual proclivities.
Small first novels that are as good as “Nobody Is Ever Missing” inevitably make you fear the second. How much more is inside this writer? What are his or her reserves?
“The Answers” blows those sorts of questions out of the pond — it makes you feel embarrassed for thinking them. This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds.