The narrative of addiction and recovery is inherently suited to the memoir form: The author is drawn into and eventually loses himself in addiction. Debauchery and suffering ensue. Later, he finds a way to stop using and tell his story. All that changes are the details. Which drugs. What catastrophes. Recovery by which means. Not so in Leslie Jamison’s version.
“The Recovering” both is and is not a memoir. Jamison recognizes that her exploits with alcohol on their own won’t hold her reader’s attention long. “I hadn’t set off a bomb in the middle of my own life,” she tells us. “It had just grown small and curdled.” Encountering this same problem, James Frey, famously, pushed his story in the direction of fiction. Jamison, instead, pushes hers toward essay.
We follow the author through college, grad school and beyond as her dependence on alcohol becomes undeniable. We see her stealing booze and drinking alone, deceiving her loved ones and blacking out with increasing frequency. We see her relapse after her first serious attempt at sobriety. But alongside this story, Jamison reads the lives and works of several writers and artists she admires who also suffered with addiction. And it is in the back and forth between memoir and literary survey that Jamison the essayist emerges.
“The Recovering” is fundamentally a long essay that draws from whatever source — autobiographical, researched, reported — that will lead Jamison on to her next thought. Most writers would struggle with this kind of book to keep the momentum for 400-plus pages, but the approach suits Jamison, who is at her best when thinking out loud.
But her strength is inseparable from her vulnerability. Jamison is so aware, so self-aware, that she is constantly reading her recovery story against those of others, recognizing the cliches she’s prone to and anticipating the responses readers are likely to have. The tendency to intellectualize experience serves her as an essayist, but it can be a curse for her to live with and is identified as one of the forces that drove her to drink: “Booze let me live inside moments without the endless chatter of my own self-conscious annotation.”
As a doctoral student, Jamison researched the relationship between alcohol and creativity. A trace of that scholarship remains where “The Recovering” occasionally drifts in the direction of a dissertation. But Jamison has the good sense to bring herself back from the brink of academic writing to precise and heartfelt language. She writes beautifully of many things, not least the pleasure of drinking: “I mashed the lime in my vodka tonic and glimpsed … my life as something illuminated from the inside.”
And she is a model literary critic, allowing her enthusiasms to become the reader’s. Jamison’s appreciation of Raymond Carver, offered while recounting a trip to his grave site in Port Angeles, Wash., will send readers back to his books.
By turning her attention outward to the stories of others, Jamison understands her own experience in a context larger than the prism of self. “The Recovering” demonstrates what memoir has always assumed: that in the stories of others we find ourselves. It is a magnificent achievement.
Scott F. Parker is a Montana-based writer and book critic.
The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath
By: Leslie Jamison.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 534 pages, $30.
Event: 7 p.m. April 24, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.