In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays, by Katie Roiphe, The Dial Press, RRP$25, 288 pages
Katie Roiphe has made a fine living as a writer by making people cross. The New York author and journalist first did this in her twenties, when she wrote a book arguing that most cases of date-rape were no such thing. In the introduction to her new collection of essays – taken from the FT and elsewhere – she declares herself to be an “uncomfortablist”, hopelessly drawn to subjects that make people ill at ease.
In Praise of Messy Lives makes me very uncomfortable indeed. Not because I disagree with any of it: most of her views are the very ones most north Londoners have held for ages. Yes, messy lives can be quite good. Yes, it’s exceedingly tiresome when people obsess about their children’s education. Yes, children of divorced parents may turn out more than fine. Yes, it’s easier to think if you disable the internet.
Not only do I agree, I wish I had written some of it myself. When I read her description of the “demoralising whiff of potential failure” she feels as a parent, I whipped out my pen and underlined the phrase in a spirit of writerly envy.
What makes me uncomfortable is Roiphe herself. For a start there is the author picture on the back flap. In provocative pose, she is glowering at the camera like an angry teenager.
More uncomfortable still is how she writes about her own life. In an essay called “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?” she takes the columnist to pieces for her easy sound-bites, for claiming that her failure to marry was because men prefer virgins in gingham dresses to successful women. Roiphe, who notes that Dowd is much pursued by adoring men, argues that writers using their own lives must do so “honestly, rigorously, complicatedly”.
This is precisely what Roiphe does herself. Nothing could be more complicated than the essay “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night”, an exploration of how she betrayed her former best friend at Harvard some 20 years ago. Stella “had some sort of unspeakable tragedy” in her background, wore punky clothes and was dead cool. She was also fat and hopelessly and miserably in love with a handsome boy whom Roiphe ends up sleeping with herself. “All I remember is that he was gentle, in the way that sensitive boys were supposed to be gentle. He brought me a warm washcloth afterward, which sickened me slightly and embarrassed me,” she writes. Which is exactly how I felt on reading this story.
Roiphe proceeds to ask herself the very thing I was wondering: what would the ex-friend think on reading the essay? Her answer is as honest as it is chilling: “Stella would say that all of this analysing ... is just another way of making this about me, rather than her. She would be right of course: I am stealing the boy all over again.”
This story drags me towards a category that the author spends a lot of time dwelling on: “Roiphe-haters.” Most people, she seems to be arguing, don’t like her because she’s too bohemian. The rest of the world is made up of married couples who “sit across from each other at a restaurant and distract themselves from the vast distance, the dullness, that has risen up between them with the bustle of menus and waiters”. While we are condemned as dull, dull, dull there she is, lipstick on, in a cab bouncing over a bridge to meet a man in a hotel bar, her children at home in their pyjamas, happily playing with dinosaurs.
As a brand new Roiphe-disliker, I want to put the record straight. I think her life sounds rather nice. I like her writing. I agree with most of her views. What I suspect I don’t like much is Roiphe herself.
But now I think of it, there is one view of hers that I don’t agree with at all. It’s the title – the idea that it is useful to divide lives into messy and tidy and to find the first somehow preferable. Having read this, I now hanker after a book called In Praise of Tidy Lives, and have in mind an author, to whom I wish I could introduce Roiphe. He could explain about the dangers of generalisations. He could also tell her how extraordinary thought can come from a life so tidy that the neighbours set their watches by the time of his afternoon stroll: his name is Immanuel Kant.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist