Katie Roiphe’s, In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays, aims to interrogate “flamboyant failures”, both personal and cultural. The collection pulls together previously published pieces and arranges them thematically in sections that concern books and the internet, in addition to more personal forays into Roiphe’s romantic peccadilloes and her adventures as a single mom. Roiphe is known as an anti-feminist provocateur, famously denying date-rape back in the ‘90s and establishing herself as a polemicist—unafraid to go up against established women writers and feminists.
Of course, Roiphe’s “outsider” status is of a particular ilk. She confesses, as Professor at NYU and columnist for Slate and other prestigious mags, that she runs in “liberal, progressive New York circles”. It is in these environs that she ends up leading a “messy” life, subjected to that “veiled judgment toward anyone who trie[s] to live differently”. In that case, her life is messy with an asterisk. It’s as messy as one can get while they remodel their new house in the midst of divorce. As messy as one can get while staying up late, dating and not being crushed, but instead, ignited by the end of marriage.
Roiphe is often insightful, and she is also often at a cocktail party or meeting someone interesting for drinks. She attends the types of events, sad to say, for which most moms (single or not) have neither the time nor energy. In these cases, her life seems kinda fantastic, not messy at all.
Roiphe’s messes are only shocking to a certain exceedingly privileged demographic. Other women who have “two children, with two different fathers” and who live with neither man, might not have Roiphe’s joie de vivre due to an abundance of economic issues. Roiphe and her demo are usually spared such monetary entanglements and their accompanying woes and disasters—the sort of messes that besiege most single mothers (and their children) in America. I imagine Roiphe’s readers include the aforementioned upmarket circles and her other audience here at Salon.com’s “Hack List” on Gawker.com, and in the comment sections of the internet. (Alex Pareene, Salon.com, 16 December 2011) .
The many audiences who positively hate her, also motivate her. Included is a piece, “The Angry Commentator,” a parsing of this “species”. In the introduction for InPraise of Messy Lives, she admits to keeping a particularly scathing remark pinned to her office wall, “for inspiration”.
What her detractors may not like to admit is that Roiphe is a wonderful writer, often eloquent, and rarely, in this collection, overly offensive. Her perspectives stem from just that, her own strikingly cushy vantage. (Her date rape argument stems, in part, from the fact that she doesn’t know any victims). In “The Bratty Bystander”, she takes on revisionist histories of women (like those that laud Shakespeare’s sister or claim that “Anonymous” was a woman). This essay focuses on a biography of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia that advocates for the girl’s unknown genius. Roiphe recoils at the “cultural appetite” for such stories, many of which include an abuse narrative. In another essay, “Making the Incest Scene”, she attacks the cultural trend for such stories, noting the “political wheels turning beneath the prose”.
She’s right that such accounts, the reclamation of the victim position, became increasingly popular around the millennium. As contrary as it seems, being a victim is still a way to achieve political agency—whether as an abused woman or as a tea partier. Though there are vast gaps in these two types of victim, there is volition in tales of disenfranchisement, maltreatment—in histories of neglect. Roiphe, as a cultural commentator, recognizes such trends (including the recent enthusiasm for messy lives) and she often aims her glare, her close reading and her gigantic highlighter, on women writers whenever they aren’t sufficient.
Hers is an unpopular practice because it bucks the concept of women’s solidarity. You know, to support the sisterhood, in the midst of a culture that promotes, instead, cattiness and competition.
Roiphe tackles this subject, indirectly, in an gorgeously written piece, “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night”, in which she narrates how she slept with a dear friend’s erstwhile lover, severing their friendship forever. As much as Roiphe criticizes women, (isn’t it the women, the other moms in her “circle” who are judging her messes?), this essay documents the loss she feels from this disconnection, this unbridgeable fault line between her and her female friend. The beautiful boy, like her first husband, and her various dates, are for the most part, irrelevant. They may exist at the center point, but they are props, objects. This essay and the others are about Roiphe and other women and what they might think of her for “stealing the boy”.
In “Beautful Boy”, Roiphe’s friend Stella is derided (as overweight and haggard) in prose that simultaneously romanticizes her and exhibits Roiphe’s talent: “black stockings, with deliberate runs, laddering her legs. Her skin is translucent, the color of skim milk… Under her eyes are extravagant circles, plum-colored and deep”. As Roiphe describes the intimate details of their friendship, the loss of Stella is palpable and heartbreaking. Also obvious is the fact that Roiphe wrecks it a second time by publishing the essay. Roiphe, oft-labeled brave, actually is in this case for coming forth with the sordid mess, a real one, knowing she will not be forgiven.
Though she writes the following about Stella, it seems to apply to her legions of readers, the admirers, the angry commentators, the feminists, all of us, who however irked, still read her careful, nuanced prose: “This is what happens when an overly intelligent woman brings all of her talents to bear on an infatuation: without either of us realizing what was happening, she somehow persuaded me of his attractiveness.” She writes this about the beautiful boy, but she could mean anything in her array of interests.
This is what happens when Roiphe writes an essay. I am somehow persuaded to read it.