There’s a moment probably halfway through “Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker”, the first of several essays in this book dealing with the author’s troubled history with her father, when a name dropped (and the connection it implies) doesn’t do Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life any favors. She is staying with him in Los Angeles for a few weeks. They had traveled to Mexico and were continuing to build a relationship after many years of nothing. He promised he’d give her his recently purchased Red vintage Chevy Impala if she got her driver’s license, and she agreed to the conditions. As they start their trip down South, he puts in a David Sedaris tape and comments on it:
“Isn’t this great? I just love that story about all those tics he has.”
“Yeah, he’s really funny [she responds]. I have some tics, too, so it’s very relatable.”
In most other instances this reference would be a throwaway line, but it proves problematic in the middle of this book, the middle of this essay. It’s as if Martin is trying too hard to place herself in a literary context she hasn’t earned. The essay does end up developing a singular identity, at least, earning a vivid life of its own. Father and daughter get colonics together, and through the process she contemplates the implications of these experiences she’s having with this man who helped create her when he was 15 only to disappear and return two decades later: “It sounds overly simplistic to say I had a lot riding on the term father…”
The essay is strong and detailed. Martin reveals that her parents had bought and sold an online business during the peak of the dot-com bubble that earned them a million dollars, and he was able to lead an independent, perhaps secretive life. He compiles a list of things for her to do, each item given a point value that translates to money. He is as meticulous and obsessive compulsive as the author, and therein lies the connection.
Unfortunately, these pieces don’t work as well for a general audience as Martin seems to think they do. Many of them come off with the same insufferably entitled Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham’s character in HBO’s Girls) voice and persona that seemed to improbably get elevated as representative of an entire post-millennial generation. Throughout the run of that program, Dunham and those who championed her as an auteur for the internet age insisted Hannah Horvath was a satire, an exaggeration of her generation, but that never came off as sincere. Sedaris might speak to the highly-educated upper-class world-traveling white intellectuals comfortable in their own sometimes fluid sexuality, often uncomfortably oblivious of the line between the personal and unnecessarily revealing essay, but more often than not aspiring for (and reaching) a sublime literary grace.
The problem with Martin’s style here is that while she might like to drop Sedaris in as a convenient reference point to prove literary credibility, much of this book is messy, stuffed with tedious details and dialogue substituting for reflection, and at times just plain cruelty. Take this moment from the colonic scene:
“The lady administering my colonic was Asian and spoke very little English.” This is fine, a perfectly identifiable tag for a worker in this type of business, but then Martin gives her Asian colonic administrator a line of dialogue: “‘Relack,’ the lady said. ‘Nothing come out yet. You need relack.’”
If Martin aspires to reach heights of Sedaris-like spoken word performances suitable for “The Moth” or other venues where monologists create spontaneous drama from what is usually the most mundane situations, unnecessary, potentially racist moments like that only serve to clutter what could have been a strong essay about a young woman trying to connect with her absentee father.
The reader probably should understand, by the end of what Martin calls “A very special introduction that knows it’s not actually special,” that Martin intends to be blunt. She aspires to “…expose myself as the piece of shit that I am, but also show how sweet and beautiful shit can be.” Martin certainly accomplishes the first goal, but it’s difficult to say if this collection of 18 essays really does anything but revel in the self-described shit, find a place to call its own in the stench and brazenly refuse to accept the possibility of redemption through the personal essay. This is not to say that all great contemporary memoirs should demonstrate the learning of a lesson, or that the story we tell should have redemptive power. This is about hoping this collection of essays had a “there” there only to see the house was big but everything in it turned to dust at the first exposure of light.
The frustrating part of this book is that several of the essays demonstrate great potential only to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot. In “Vandal”, for example, Martin paints a convincing picture of life as a 12-year-old who becomes obsessed with toilet-papering houses. She assembles a crew of like-minded miscreants (the first of many instances where a litany of names are presented with no apparent purpose but to demonstrate that the lonely young girl Chelsea Martin ran with a lot of people.) She believes she might be lesbian. She and her friend receive a sentence of 40 hours community service “but I never worked a minute of my share of them, because my mom didn’t make me.” It’s hard to tell here if Martin is bragging or regrets this moment (one of many) when her parents didn’t do their job.
There are essays here that work quite well, but their presence just makes the reader wish Martin had focused on a primary theme and carried through on that. In “A Year without Spoons”, she writes about a decisive moment in her teenage life when she decided to embrace being a loner: “I raced to my favorite bench when the lunch bell rang so I could spread my things over it and make it awkward for anyone else to try to sit near me… I was a lonely little bitch.”
The essay is ostensibly about the title act, a choice to surrender the use of spoons and find another way to consume food, but it’s deeper than that. It’s about understanding her Tourette’s, which she details in even better detail in the next essay, “Voluntary Responses to Involuntary Sensations”. In that one, a doctor keeps recommending that she read Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. She has unwanted thoughts of characters like a hill man, visions of a figure walking up a hill, boring and predictable yet somehow comforting. Such visions come and go, as is typical of obsessions, and she realizes they’re unavoidable: “Over time, my tics got better and then they got worse and then much better and then much worse, a cycle that promises no end.”
In “Trashy Coming-of Age Story”, Martin speaks bluntly about her substance abuse, doing whippets, and sniffing aerosol air duster fumes.
“‘Whenever I do drugs,’ I said, ‘I feel like if I died I wouldn’t care at all. Like I just accept the possibility of death and it doesn’t scare me.’” The problem is that unlike some of the other essays that are more substantial than just a narrative about problems with a boyfriend of the moment, she doesn’t expand these ideas. Perhaps there really wasn’t as much to the story as she’d want us to believe, or the moments worth sharing proved insubstantial. Regardless, this volume could have been greatly improved had the reader delved more into subjects such as substances, Tourette’s, and adjusting to rather than surrendering to conditions.
The hardest part of an essay collection is creating connections, and the numerous false starts and aborted endings in Caca Dolce make for a frustrating experience. When it works, the book is strong. In “How to Bullshit”, Martin goes on an extended discussion of what she learned in art school. She had never considered herself poor, but compared to her classmates she was destitute. She learned how to spend $3k each on classes for her major and she never advanced. The primary lesson art school taught Martin is described in this essay’s title.
In “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay”, which closes the book, Martin notes that “My dad had a specific talent for saying things that made me hate things about myself.” Between struggles to fix her teeth and deal with increasingly harassing behavior from this father she really no longer wants in her life, the essay becomes a compelling and strong narrative about a struggle that seems to still be happening.
It would be easy to say that Caca Dolce is a collection of essays from an impetuous young writer who would have been wise to let them cook a little longer before serving. Dismissing it as a brief collection of essays equal parts compelling and self-indulgent might not be fair, but simple and unfair assessments are sometimes the only logical conclusions to make. There’s a great deal here that deserves attention: Tourette’s and artistic potential, relationships between absentee fathers and daughters, and the temptation of legal substance abuse. Taken in little pieces, this is an interesting book that doesn’t necessarily speak for its generation so much as effectively define a young woman’s singular voice. Taken as a cohesive volume, this is approximately 200 pages that digress, wallow, and occasionally entertain, though it’s highly unlikely it will have a long shelf life.