Michelle Orange





By: Michelle Orange.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 338 pages, $16.

Review: Rich, intelligent essays by film writer Michelle Orange investigate perception, art, technology and long-distance running.

Book review: 'This is Running for Your Life,' by Michelle Orange

  • Article by: S.J. Culver
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 11, 2013 - 2:28 PM

The great fun of Michelle Orange’s “This Is Running for Your Life” is in watching an essayist build associations between seemingly unconnected topics — James Dean and Michael Jackson, air travel and old age, Hawaii and DSM-5 — with all the ease and agility of a master craftsman. Orange is primarily a film writer, and it would be difficult to name another cultural critic who brings such a high level of intellectual rigor to her subject. Her essays are funny, but not frivolous; sharp, but not brittle. “This Is Running for Your Life” is thoughtful, heartfelt, witty and deeply impressive.


The essays in this collection typically rely on a braided structure, making liberal use of autobiographical snippets; Orange is at her best juxtaposing reminiscence and ek­phrasis. In a piece on “dream girls” in popular culture, she weaves between descriptions of her own adolescence with its riot grrrl idolatry and pointed critique of a new feminine type that has emerged on-screen, “so stuffed with [a] fatuous, hipster fairy-tale idea of personality that she jams the imagination instead of colonizing it.” In another piece, a personal history of running, she describes the “lunar rhythm” of Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” with its “long, pellucid scenes of familial drift.” In Orange’s writing, the individual gives way to the art (and vice versa), each illuminating the other.

“This Is Running for Your Life” doesn’t quite escape the usual crutches of contemporary nonfiction — there are the obligatory references to David Foster Wallace and the occasional glibness (“Puberty can go off like an IED in the Iraqi desert”). While Orange’s tone and treatment work superbly to weave together Sontag and Soderbergh, irreverence isn’t as good a match for topics like end-of-life care and civil war (Lebanon’s is once jokingly referenced as a “minor buzzkill”). Still, an abiding intelligence guides readers through the pages, and it’s gratifying to encounter a writer with such a strong ability to balance the personal and the critical.

This collection isn’t always an easy read, but there’s no reason it should be. The prose is dense, winding and rarely uncareful; the tortuous sentences are suited to the complex ideas Orange interrogates. Each piece contains multitudes: snippets of memoir, paragraphs of exegesis, fragments of history, melancholy, joy. It’s a good book for readers who like to think as they read, and an excellent corrective for those of us who may have fallen out of the habit. We are, after all, only what we think; as Orange observes, “perception forms a kind of secret passage: the first, submissive step into an unrecordable reality is a first step toward the self.”


S.J. Culver is a writer living in California.

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