In the age of memoir, essay collections are a tough sell. Like short story collections, books of essays seem destined to be sampled rather than appreciated start to finish. That is a shame. Good essay collections are performances: multiple acts of form and function, threaded together with theme. I have always loved the fiction of Andre Dubus, but it was not until I read Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair that I began to understand the mind and heart behind the stories. This is not to say that essays serve an ancillary function, but rather that essays contain the inevitable need to require a point — either one orchestrated by the writer, or one imbued by the reader.
A masterful essay collection is a metered intellectual exercise. It is enjoyable to settle into the novelistic voice of memoir, but it is athletic to sprint, pause, breathe, and start again with the short-range essayist. Here are four essay collections worth reading: writers who challenge, surprise, and eventually reward their readers for staying the course.
1. White Girls by Hilton Als
Als is a literary showman, and White Girls is a masterful routine. The first act, “Tristes Tropiques,” is a nonfiction novella about the writer’s complicated longing for SL (Sir or Lady), whom Als considers his twin. The essay takes its name from a book by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose own interest in twins mirrors the romantic manner in which Als considers his own doubling. “I have always been one half of a whole,” Als writes, for “my ghostly twin, my nearly perfect other half” was his stillborn older brother. At roughly 80 pages, “Tristes Tropiques” is massive, a seemingly illogical choice to begin a collection, but White Girls is no average performance. “This Lonesome Place,” Als’s take on Flannery O’Connor, is best captured in its final sentence: “Her work has moved away from the South as she defined and knew it, all the way to Hollywood, where Americans have embraced it, hearing in O’Connor’s voice her uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” Als writes with equal verve about Truman Capote, Eminem, Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, André Leon Talley, and James Baldwin, yet my favorite is his treatment of Michael Jackson. I first read “Michael” in The New York Review of Books, where even its four-part structure felt inevitable. The essay begins in 1972, when “the female elders tell us what to look out for:” the men who exit the neon-lit Starlite Lounge in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Als hears Jackson’s first solo hit, “Ben,” escape from the bar before the door closes. How fascinating that a film-soundtrack song about a rat was a “mournful ballad,” which was embraced “among the queens at the Starlite, who ignore its Gothic context and play it over and over again as a kind of anthem of queer longing.” “Ben” was Jackson personified, “all child — an Ariel of the ghetto, whose appeal, certainly to the habitués of places like the Starlite, lay partly in his ability to find metaphors to speak about his difference, and theirs.” The ability to capture a soul in a single sentence is no small gift.
2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Als mentions Baldwin’s essay about Jackson, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in which Baldwin writes that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” To sing the praises of Baldwin as an essayist is nothing new, but The Fire Next Time needs to be read and studied more often. It is a pair of epistles; the first, “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation. Eternally a writer formed by hymn and sermon, his conclusion rises: “For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” “Down at the Cross,” the longer, second essay, sears the page. This was 1962, this is now: “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else — housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers — would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.” Baldwin hits so many notes here, yet I always return to his strained relationship with God and his house. “On the blindest, most visceral level,” Baldwin never was able to “disengage myself from [the] excitement” of church: “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.” That Baldwin follows these memories with a critique of the structure and soul of that church is the rhetorical power of The Fire Next Time: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
3. The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults by Joyelle McSweeney
Poet and playwright McSweeney carries her rhythms to prose, and the results are essays that remake the boundaries of criticism and personal narrative. The concept of the “necropastoral” describes the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral.” The occult angle suggests the blurring of the real and surreal, orchestrated by the strangeness inherent in most literature. Here she writes of Wilfred Owen (“The poems form a continuous, necrotizing battlefield, a skinlike surface, pitted and dubious, capable of inscription and unexpected transmission, full of holes and wounds through which pity can escape like a stench”); of Jack Smith’s continual, obsessive editing of his pastoral film, Normal Love; and her fellow Catholic artist Andy Warhol, who, “possessed by media, becomes another medium in a fluxing, necrotic, necromantic, anachronistic field of media” and others. Finally, McSweeney — a poet-essayist elsewhere interested in transformation, as in “how Catholic saint’s lore is really a kind of media theory, an idea about how certain kinds of power moves from place to place” — examines translation as perhaps the apex of art. Translation “works on extant materials and transforms them — conforms them — into new, sculptural, legible shapes.” Translation might be the most human of arts: it requires humility, transformation, resurrection in new language. In that vein, the art of the essay is an exercise in translation.
4. Sublime Physick by Patrick Madden
It is tempting to call Madden’s approach encyclopedic, but that suggests horizontal over vertical inquiry. Madden’s range is certainly wide, but he also manages to dig, and the end result of his essays here (and in his first collection, Quotidiana), is not merely collection but accumulation. “Spit,” the first essay in the book, is a representative sample. Madden begins with learning how to spit while “walking down a thin path through the thick Maine woods” sometime in the ’70s. Next he considers the antiseptic properties of the action, and how his daughter spit on him by mistake as they were about to enter church. He remembers his friend teaching him how to “gleek,” which happens to be the name of the space-monkey from The Wonder Twins cartoon, a monkey that chattered rather than spoke clearly. That idea of marble-mouthing makes him think of how his father, a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, would sing to him and his siblings, and how Madden would become obsessed with the misunderstanding of lyrics. That leads him to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — “Catch the spirit, catch the spit” — and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who “was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way.” He continues to Isaiah 50:6, Mark 8:22, when a fan spit in the face of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and, finally burrows down to personal stories, concluding with one of shame. This is what essays were made for, in the words of Madden’s introduction-style chapter: essays are “oxymoronic characters, rooted in the natural world, derived from real experience…always reaching toward ideas, trying to transcend mere description or depiction. Thus, essays, perform a kind of sublimation of the solid; from the concrete, they attain abstraction.” Essays as transfigurations of self and soul.